THE KING'S MAN is directed by Matthew Vaughn. It stars Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Bruhl, Djimon Hounsou, and Charles Dance. The movie is a prequel to KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE and KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE, with the franchise as a whole based on the graphic novel THE SECRET SERVICE by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.
In the 1910s, World War I is raging in Europe, with a shadow group of many history's most infamous figures manipulating events behind the scenes. Orlando Oxford of England honors a vow to protect the son he and his late wife had, much to the young man's dismay, wanting to enlist and serve his country on the battlefield. With the balance of power in the world shattered by war, Oxford finds himself torn between difficult decisions as his son continually wants to break away to make a difference in the fight. Will the tide turn and the allies prove victorious? And who's manipulating events from the shadows?
I saw KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE in 2015, and was immediately won over with its charismatic characters, over-the-top action violence, and no shortage of memorable scenes, largely thanks to a memorable cast that includes the likes of Colin Firth and Taron Egerton. The sequel KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE wasn't quite the instant classic the first film was, but still won me over overall thanks to the same elements that made the first film so memorable. When I heard Matthew Vaughn, who brought us the previous two films, was planning a prequel with a cast that included actors like Daniel Bruhl, Ralph Fiennes, and Djimon Hounsou, I was thrilled. An ensemble cast telling the origins of the secret organization from the prior two films? The movie was delayed nearly two years due to the ongoing pandemic in the modern world (and it actually had been delayed prior to that, even), but it's finally here. With a killer cast and intriguing premise, what could possibly go wrong?
Turns out, just about everything. On the battlefield in the trenches of Europe, THE KING'S MAN is a monumental misfire. The movie lacks everything the later-set entries have, including an intriguing plot and memorable characters. It's tonally inconsistent, unsure of what it wants to be, and shamelessly borrows from other films, some better and some worse. It wasn't worth the two years worth of delays, and is a story probably best left untold. The true standout players in the movie are criminally underused and underemphasized, and everyone else feels like they'd rather be in another movie.
I'll at least give THE KING'S MAN credit for bringing together some pretty solid names, including Ralph Fiennes as the picture's leading man, Djimon Hounsou as the servant every bit his master's equal, and several other surprise names as well. The two best performances in the movie, by far, come from Gemma Arterton as a servant who's not afraid to stand her ground and share the battlefield with the boys, and Rhys Ifans as a devilishly charismatic Rasputin, chewing up the scenery every time he's on screen. Unfortunately, neither one of them is in the movie enough, with the film seemingly more interested in less interesting characters. Trust me; you'll want more of Ifans' Rasputin every second he's not on the screen. He's that good. Too bad not much else in this picture is.
Everything else falls dreadfully flat. Ralph Fiennes should be the very picture of bravery and determination in any film where he's the hero. Here, he's a sniveling wimp who refuses to let his son go to war. Is this really the man who was once M and Voldemort? His potential is absolutely wasted here, and his son is a bland and uninteresting hero who feels like the stock "War Movie" stereotype that doesn't bring as much to the movie has he should. Talented actors like Djimon Hounsou and Daniel Bruhl simply aren't given enough to do, and that's the real tragedy here.
The movie's tonal inconsistencies are its undoing. I wanted something with the over-the-top action violence, gadgetry, and memorable characters and setpieces that defined the later-set films, but director/writer Matthew Vaughn doesn't quite want to go that far here, leaving me in a state of disbelief that this is the man who directed previous installments that involved people literally being cut in half and put through a meat grinder. What we get instead is a bland World War I-set action movie that feels like a mash-up of 1917 and THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. While I do appreciate actual history and historic figures being incorporated into the film's plot, they can't save the film from being a dreadful two-hour-plus bore.
No one was more excited than me to see THE KING'S MAN, but it's hard to believe this is part of the same series that once won me over with its action violence spectacles and memorable characters. We instead get a tonally inconsistent mess of a movie that borrows too liberally from others, and we're left with something worth avoiding; let's hope the next normal non-prequel KINGSMAN film takes the series back to its super-violent roots and worthy characterizations. A mid-credits scene implies we may eventually get an interquel of sorts, but after having sat through this slog, is that really something I want to see? Skip this one and wait for the next proper KINGSMAN picture.