The King’s Man is not one of the great prequels of all time, but it’s a big step up from the bad taste that Golden Circle left.

Film Review: The King’s Man

Film Reviews

The King’s Man
Director: Matthew Vaughn

Marv Studios and Cloudy Productions
In Theaters 12.22

I’m a pushover for a good spy thriller, and while I did have some complaints with it, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a film that worked more often than it didn’t. Its sequel, The Golden Circle, however, was such a self indulgent, creatively bereft, crass and tedious bore that I actually left it seriously considering quitting my critic job because I felt like it had ruined movies as a whole. I’ll be totally honest, part of me was dreading the prequel, The King’s Man.

In The King’s Man, Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List, The English Patient) plays Orlando, Duke of Oxford, a well connected aristocrat known for his exceptional service to the crown in times of conflict. When Orlando’s wife is killed while they are in a war zone, he devotes his life to pacifism and keeping his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson, The Darkest Minds) out of harm’s way. But in 1914, when tensions start to stir in Europe and lead the world to the brink of war, young Conrad grows impatient with his father’s coddling, and British War minister Kitchener (Charles Dance, Game of Thrones) and King George (Tom Hollander, Pirates of the Caribbean) call upon Orlando to come out of retirement and lead a covert effort to avert the conflict. The Duke reluctantly agrees, and he takes the three people he trusts most with him: Conrad, Conrad’s nanny, Polly (Gemma Arterton, Summerland), and his faithful sidekick, Shola (Djimon Hounsou, Amistad) to get investigate a vast conspiracy that threatens to destroy the world.

The World War I setting makes The King’s Man inherently more interesting, at least to a history buff like me, and the intricate but intentionally ridiculous details of the conspiracy that link figures ranging from Gavrillo Princip (Joel Bassman, A Hidden Life) and Girgori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans, Love, Actually) were oddly amusing to me, especially in a time when a lot of people believe in even less plausible theories. Director Matthew Vaughn, who has helmed all three films, seems to be making a concerted effort not to let this one go as far off the rails as The Golden Circle, dialing down the graphic violence and constant vulgarity to just a little bit less than than they were in the first film, and the story is a lot more focused. 

Fiennes, one of my all time favorite actors, really makes the most of this last big chance to prove himself as an action hero, and he nails it. The pairing of Fiennes as the too-often underused Hounsou as action heroes was enough to make me get past most of my complaints. It’s still overlong and sometimes needlessly crude, but where the second film was completely lacking in any cleverness, The King’s Man at least has a story to tell and some intriguingly goofy concepts behind it. Dickinson lacks the instant movie star charisma that Taron Edgerton brought to the original, but he’s playing a different character, and he and Fiennes are thankfully not the mere stand-ins for Edgerton and Colin Firth that the trailers made me fear they would be. 

Vaughn does strong work with the action, as usual, and while there’s nothing quite as unforgettable as the church fight in the first film, there’s more variation in set pieces and it’s less repetitive. The cinematography by Ben Davis (Eternals) and production design by Darrin Gilford (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Spider-Man: No Way Home) make The King’s Man visually pleasing throughout.  It does drag a bit in the middle, and there are some frustrating missed opportunities, particularly where Rasputin is concerned. But it never completely loses its way, and Fiennes really deserves the lion’s share of the credit for keeping things on track and just involving enough to work.

The King’s Man is not one of the great prequels of all time, nor is it likely to be more than a one-shot addition to the franchise, but it’s a big step up from the bad taste that Golden Circle left me with, and while it may not be enough to make me eager to see more, I’ll see The King’s Man a second time. I strongly feel that it’s time for Vaughn to let it go and move on to new things, but if we have to have a third film with the original cast, The King’s Man at least allows me to approach it with uncontrollable nausea. –Patrick Gibbs