‘The King’s Man’: Film Review

Ralph Fiennes stars in Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to his hit ‘Kingsman’ movies, set during the outbreak of World War I and depicting the origins of the mysterious intelligence agency.

Public school teachers desperately attempting to interest their students in World War I could do worse than show them The King’s Man. Yes, they’ll have to do a lot of correcting of the fantastical revisionist history in Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to his Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle. But there’s no denying the lurid fascination of a movie featuring a murderous Rasputin, a seductive Mata Hari and a blackmail plot involving a Woodrow Wilson sex tape. Talk about history come alive!

Vaugh, who directed and co-scripted with Karl Gajdusek, has taken a big swing with this effort, which differs sharply in tone from the previous two entries in the franchise. This film has a much darker, more serious tone, feeling more like an historical epic than the spy spoofery of its predecessors, which were dominated by tongue-in-cheek action hijinks and sharp quips. There’s no shortage of elaborately staged set pieces, some of which are outstanding, but viewers shouldn’t be blamed if they sometimes feel as if they’ve accidentally wandered into an auditorium showing 1917.

The King’s Man

The Bottom Line

A cheeky revisionist-history/action-movie blast.

Release date: Friday, December 17

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Bruhl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Screenwriters: Matthew Vaughn, Karl Gajdusek

Rated R,
2 hours 11 minutes

The results may turn some Kingsman fans off, but those willing to embrace this entry’s greater thematic and stylistic ambitions will find much to savor, including the stirring lead performance by Ralph Fiennes. The actor not only manages to give a fully committed dramatic portrayal that doesn’t give a hint of the material’s underlying silliness, but also demonstrates that he could have been a terrific James Bond if given the chance.

He plays the aristocratic Orlando, Duke of Oxford, whose deep commitment to pacifism is illustrated by the events in the opening scene. Cut to years later, when he’s raising his seventeen-year-old son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) on his own at his palatial estate. Well, not on his own, exactly, as he has the help of a devoted group of servants, including his right-hand-man Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and a housekeeper, Polly (a kickass Gemma Arterton), who is clearly the unofficial boss of the house.

Hoping to prevent the outbreak of war, Orlando has recruited an army of international servants to spy on their masters, since they’re best situated to silently observe what’s really going on in the backrooms. But despite his best efforts, he’s unable to prevent the inevitable after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand (Ron Cook), which has apparently been orchestrated by a mysterious mastermind.

The film ingeniously weaves in real-life events and characters, including three historical leaders — King George, Tsar Nicholas and Kaiser Wilhelm — amusingly played by a single actor, Tom Hollander. The most audacious conceit concerns the Russian madman monk Grigori Rasputin, who has been fascinating movie audiences since being played by Lionel Barrymore in MGM’s 1932 Rasputin and the Empress (not even the first cinematic depiction). He’s played here by Rhys Ifans, who delivers a mesmerizing turn that makes the character both hilarious and truly terrifying in a Grand Guignol manner. A lengthy battle to the death between Rasputin and Orlando and Shola, as much Russian ballet as sword fight, is one of the film’s highlights.

Overcoming his father’s best efforts, Conrad manages to enlist in the British Army, and despite King George pulling the strings to keep him away from the front line, he winds up deep in the trenches in a nightmarish battle.

It all leads up to Orlando rousing himself to guarantee that America enters the war, via an elaborate mission involving him, Shola and Polly attempting to breach a forbidding mountain compound. The climactic action sequence, which has Fiennes jumping out of a plane via a newfangled invention called a parachute and interacting with some pesky mountain goats, is a marvel of stunt work and special effects.

Like many origin stories, The King’s Man has slow spots and pacing issues. The first half in particular takes a while to get going, but the attention to historical detail and the marvelous production values compensate for the occasional lethargy. The revelation of the mysterious mastermind’s true identity proves underwhelming, as if the filmmakers were overly determined to include a nemesis of Bond villain status.

Speaking of villains, be sure to stick around for the end credits, during which another diabolical real-life historical personage is introduced who may well become a central figure in the franchise’s inevitable next installment.

Full credits

Production companies: 20th Century Studios, Marv Studios, Cloudy
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Bruhl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenwriters: Matthew Vaughn, Karl Gajdusek
Producers: Matthew Vaughn, David Reid, Adam Bohling
Executive producers: Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons, Stephen Marks, Claudia Vaughn, Ralph Fiennes
Director of photography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Darren Gilford
Editors: Jason Ballantine, Rob Hall
Composers: Matthew Margeson, Dominic Lewis
Costume designer: Michele Clapton
Casting: Reginald Poerscout-Edgerton

Rated R, 2 hours 11 minutes