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The King's Man Review: In The Before Times

The "Kingsman" franchise, though adapted from Mark Millar and David Gibbons' "Secret Service" comic series, is equally director Matthew Vaughn's baby. Millar's entire brand as a comics creator is working with superstar artists to produce creator-owned work designed to have their rights optioned by a studio for big bucks. It's the lure he dangles over his collaborators — movies like "Kick Ass," "Wanted," and yes, "Kingsman" make their original artists serious coin. But the adaptations done by Vaughn are unique in that he worked on the screen versions alongside the creation of the original comics. His first "Kingsman" movie keeps some of the brash irreverence of Millar's authorial style, but its more Vaughn's attempt to make his own James Bond franchise with the serial numbers filed off. Whether you're a fan of the last two Colin Firth-led outings or not, setting them side by side with the books that inspired them, there's precious little stylistic overlap.

But "The King's Man," the new prequel film that has been delayed time and again, feels like an even further departure. Focusing on the initial formation of The Kingsman Agency during World War I. Vaughn, alongside co-writer and "Stranger Things" vet Karl Gajdusek, swaps out Firth for Ralph Fiennes as Orlando Oxford, an aristocrat and pacifist dragged into the global conflict against his will. While it has enough stylistic overlap with the previous films, it feels, for much of its runtime anyway, so much more subdued. 

At times, this makes "The King's Man" feel like a marked improvement over what has come before it, or, technically after it. There's just something charming about a more repressed affair about primordial spy-craft, buoyed by a strong lead performance and an abundance of heart. Unfortunately, the rest of the picture is something of a mess, and it plays with real world events in a way that becomes laughable by its cringe-worthy mid-credits tease for the future.

Fathers and sons

Where the first two "Kingsman" films were centered around the mentoring between Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Harry Hart (Firth), "The King's Man" is built around an actual father and son relationship, one fraught with tragedy. Orlando (Fiennes), after the film's heartbreaking prologue, only has one mission in life, and that's to honor his slain wife's final plea to keep their son safe. He's fought in war. He's seen the death and destruction these needless conflicts bring. For him, there is no honor or duty in dying for one's country. But his son Conrad (Harris Dickson) has trained all his life in a variety of combat capacities and has grown tired of being locked up on their estate, unable to engage with the world outside his father's overprotective grasp.

Orlando is brought into the fray, regardless of his personal political beliefs, when his friend the Archduke Franz Ferdinand is in danger of being assassinated. He fails to prevent the inevitable, setting the stage for the Great War to begin, but this being a fictional spy movie based on a comic book and not genuine historical fiction, there's a nefarious cabal of shady villains conspiring behind the scenes who are responsible for the proceedings. This league of extraordinary brigands is headed by a mysterious Scottish maestro, but includes international figures like Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl). 

The conflict brings to the fore the fact that Orlando has been doing some behind the scenes work himself, with an unofficial, extralegal espionage task force comprised of his personal driver Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and his head of household Polly (Gemma Arterton), who have helped him amass a network of spies that includes "the help" in nearly every palace on the planet. 

For its first half, all about keeping Conrad from fighting in the war, the film feels like a solid enough, if glacially paced, period drama. The cast is all pretty solid, with Fiennes in particular bringing his A-game and Dickson, a rising star desperately in need of a breakout role since his sterling work in the film "Beach Rats," showing more promise. These two really sell the audience on the mini-drama of their relationship and the ideological conflict between a boy who thinks he must go to war to become a man and a man who has been to war and wishes more than anything to save his son from the same ruinous fate.

But unfortunately, the movie does have to devolve into what it says on the tin, a manic and frantic action thriller with less panache than either of its two predecessors. 

The Deepest State

There are parts of "The King's Man" that temporarily might make some viewers think they stumbled into a Brazzers parody of Sam Mendes' "1917," as the overall look and tone feel as ponderous and prestige as one would expect from a film set during WWI, only mildly jaundiced by over the top hand-to-hand combat and wild camera movements designed to remind you this is, in fact, a "Kingsman" movie. But once the film has a mid-point shock that sets the rest of the narrative on its proper course, it truly does just turn into a pale imitation of what's come before it.

So many random and laughable elements hold it back from feeling like something worth investing in. The film chooses to literalize the kinship between cousins King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas by having them all played by Tom Hollander, who delivers such broad and nausea-inducing portraits of each that his screen time may as well be a dancing hot dog shouting "let's all go to the lobby" at the audience. Ifans' Rasputin has his moments, but the make-up job makes him look like Peter Stormare who, all things considered, would have done a much better job. The mystery about who is behind this secret organization is so rote and telegraphed that its final reveal is pretty groan-worthy.

But a lot of that stuff could be forgiven if the film leaned more into what actually works, which is mostly, surprisingly, Fiennes as a sort of swashbuckling adventure man. Where Firth felt like a souped-up Bond analogue mixed with cartoonish ultraviolence, Fiennes has such an earnest and captivating presence that he comes off like a genuine throwback. The parts of the film that feature him engaging in fisticuffs and hanging from tall structures make it extra sad that he doesn't get more roles like this, but, y'know, in better and more interesting films.

"The King's Man" is a real mess. There's enough to like amid the rubble to make it a pleasant enough viewing experience, but nothing to make it memorable, nothing to make it truly worthwhile. The actual origin story and prequel elements feel tacked on in the third act. But most troubling is the film's suggesting some discomfiting ideas bout the ultra-rich taking global espionage into their own hands because governments can't be trusted, and how that plays out in a sequel-teasing post-credits sequence that suggests treating the impending doom of the second World War and the literal actual Holocaust as if they were the next phase of the MCU.

This film feels destined to fail commercially, meaning it will most likely go down as an odd curio in an otherwise successful franchise, which is absolutely fair, given how much it looks like something that would have come out in 2003 and then immediately memory holed from history.