The King’s Man
- Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
- Action/Adventure | R | 2 hr 11 min
- Exclusively in Theaters
By Reed Ripley
It’s hard to screw up a globetrotting World War I film filled with impeccable suits, political intrigue, and Ralph Fiennes, but The King’s Man managed to do it.
The film takes place in the years leading up to and including World War I and follows the Duke of Oxford (Fiennes), a respected, avowed pacifist (thanks to war trauma earlier in his life) trying desperately to hold onto peace, both for his only son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson) and the world at large. Eventually the terrible reality of war, global politicians’ inability to do anything about it, and a secret cabal of criminal masterminds force the Duke to shed his pacifism and take matters into his and his trusted allies’ hands, forming the bones of the secret, independent spy agency known as Kingsman.
Shockingly, this is already the third film in the Kingsman franchise, based off the Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons comic book series of the same name. Kingsman is the third property adapted from the “Millarverse” following the subversive, meta superhero series Kick-Ass and the bullet-bending assassin thriller Wanted, and it’s by far the most successful. What made Kingsman: The Secret Service and even Kingsman: The Golden Circle so great was their excellent mix of campy hyper-violence with classic elements of the spy thriller genre, coupled with wonderful casts who knew how to strike the balance.
The King’s Man tries to do something different, and while it’s understandable why Vaughn and Co. wanted to shake things up, it’s disappointing to see it stray so far from the franchise’s winning formula. The Golden Circle showed signs of diminishing returns on the campy violence, but swinging so wildly in the other direction just doesn’t work. It could have pulled it off through full commitment to the shift, but it couldn’t divorce itself fully from its past, leading to an uneven result.
When the film does lean into its comic book and predecessor DNA, it usually feels jarring. Most notably, the scenes with Rhys Ifans’s Rasputin feel like they’re in a completely different film. The scenes read as weird; not in fun way, but in a repulsive and cringy way. The marketing materials heavily feature the Rasputin character, but he’s not actually in much of the film, thanks to what I can only assume was the filmmakers’ late realization the character didn’t mesh. There’s a version of this film where Rasputin is the cherry on top of a very fun time, but as is, it’s off-putting.
The writing doesn’t help things, and in fact, it actively hurts. The film isn’t shy about explicitly telling you its themes, and it much too often feels like PG writing with a rated R filter. It vacillates wildly between sheer earnestness and cheeky slyness, which leads to both coming off flat. It’s not just the tone, either; the history-adjacent plot points and shadowy criminal organization details feel extremely forced, sometimes to the point of eye-rolling.
Too, without giving away any details, there’s a character death that’s one of the most egregious examples of contrived audience manipulation I’ve ever seen. It’s not like the first two films are shining examples of screenwriting (although The Secret Service is quite good), but without enough inventive and engaging action to act as connective tissue, the plot holes and characterization flaws stand out.
I don’t want to make this out to be a truly terrible film, because it’s not. Plenty of people will see this, have a decent time at the movies, and move on. However, that’s even more disappointing. In a series defined by its flair and subversion, The King’s Man turned out mostly safe and forgettable, and that’s a shame.
Reed Ripley is a movie aficionado who in his spare time is a local attorney. You can find Ripley’s movie reviews on Instagram @mct.film.