Review: ‘The King’s Man’ (WWI was an inside job)

Can’t make a sequel because your stars are tied up in other commitments? Gotcha covered.

As the world’s first independent intelligence agency (read: vigilantes without borders), how did the Kingsman agency get started? Meet Lord Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a former soldier outspokenly against war in all its iterations, determined to keep a promise to his late wife to ensure their son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) never know such horrors. When a cabal threatens millions by orchestrating a global war unlike the world has ever seen to seize power and destroy Britain, Conrad seeks to make a name for himself in battle. The young man soon discovers his “timid” father fights in his own way, taking the fight to those giving orders and sparing the bloodshed of countryman. Taking on the likes of Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), and Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), can the new agency clear the board of opponents before all of Britain’s allies and Britain itself are defeated?

As a COVID-delayed film, director Matthew Vaughn’s third foray into Mark Millar’s comic “The Secret Service” — upon which the Kingsman series is based — goes a decidedly less comical route, a period thriller establishing the roots of the agency and the need for it to exist. With series-lead Taron Egerton off doing Rocketman and Colin Firth no longer interested, Fiennes stepped into the Oxfords to tell an early tale of the agency. Considering the agency losses suffered in The Golden Circle and the series penchant for over-the-top violence distancing itself from “proper British spy fare” like the 007 films, could going old-school spycraft without the modern trappings be the holdover filmmakers and fans are looking for?

By forgoing the fish-out-of-water story Egerton’s POV brought to the series introduction, The King’s Man feels grown up next to its predecessors. The Rasputin scene teased in the trailer is the real showpiece, akin to the insanity of the church scene in the original film, but going back to pre-tech in the same way the Daniel Craig James Bond films did — de-emphasizing gadgetry in lieu of raw character — makes it feel like a different series. The previous installments were good but not great, a mostly forgettable fun time, and this prequel is no exception… but the door is left open just a crack if the demand materializes for “Kingsman Begins.”

Fiennes looks incredibly capable, especially in light of how spent he looked in No Time To Die as head of MI-6. Djimon Hounsou has played his same part in so many franchises that his name must be on the short list for every casting agent whenever his description comes up. Channeling her feisty heroine from the underrated Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Gemma Arterton owns her place as Polly in the Kingsman agency, and no one questions it. The plum role to both play and watch, however, goes to Rhys Ifans as Rasputin, the notoriously manipulative nigh-unkillable monk and advisor who may or may not be a being of magic. If another prequel goes forward, there’s nothing more Bond-like than a henchman who survives, and Rasputin could undeniably become the Jaws of this spy series.

There’s more pretty people talking in pretty rooms than this series is known for — it’s awards season, after all — but The King’s Man holds its own and should be a welcome addition for fans of the series… or nice waste of a Christmas Saturday matinee.

The King’s Man is rated R for sequences of strong/bloody violence, language, some sexual material, and making the other man die for his country.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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