December 23, 2021

Review: Manners Maketh “The King’s Man”

The Kingsman film franchise has been reliable in some ways, and unreliable in others. Since it began in 2015, it’s been a comically ridiculous parody of the spy genre, but its consistent mocking nature means that truly dramatic and emotional moments are few and far between. At the same time, though, neither film (from 2015 or 2017) has fully delved into comedy, which makes for an odd balance that becomes more uneven as the films progress.

The new Kingsman film goes in a drastically different direction, in a bold move for the franchise that I believe pays in dividends. This is The King’s Man, set during the First World War, which explores the origins of the Kingsman organization amongst the tragedies the war brings. Six years after the franchise’s inception but only two movies in, I’m glad that they’re switching it up this soon. It’s a good sign that the creatives behind it (including returning director Matthew Vaughn) aren’t afraid to take risks and introduce brand-new characters in a very different world, with little connection to the other films in the series.

In the world of The King’s Man, the major events of the war are controlled by a thick-accented Scotsman called the Shepherd and his secret society, which includes Gavrilo Princip (the assassin of Franz Ferdinand, whose death is largely credited as the main case of the war), Erik Hanussen (manipulative advisor to Kaiser Wilhelm) and Grigori Rasputin (the “Mad Monk” who controlled Russia’s royal family in the early 20th century). While the Shepherd’s actor is a spoiler, I will say that Rhys Ifans — who plays Rasputin — is brilliantly over-the-top anytime he appears, whether it be cutaways or ballet-infused fight scenes. The connectedness of the war’s events that The King’s Man proposes is unironically hilarious, and makes for some bizarre, out-of-nowhere, laugh-out-loud moments.

So, yes, The King’s Man is also full of some brilliant historical in-jokes, which is a side benefit for this kind of film playing in the period sandbox. One of the best of these, in my opinion, is that Tom Hollander plays all three major European leaders during the war — King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas — seeing as they were all cousins in real life. His distinction between his three performances (even though we mostly see him as King George) is quite good, even though it’s just one of many increasingly crazy historical references we get throughout the film.

Hopefully, we didn’t need any more convincing as to how horrible World War I was, but The King’s Man makes sure to give us an up-close look into the atrocities of the war, albeit through a hyperbolic, action-film lens that we wouldn’t necessarily get in a documentary like They Shall Not Grow Old. There’s one scene in particular, featuring a mad dash back to a trench, that felt like a departure from the rest of the movie but I didn’t really care.

Even though most of it was fun, there were parts of The King’s Man that had me internally cheering, and there were parts where my brain wanted to fall asleep. I adored the visuals and the action is fantastic, but even though The King’s Man is far more fun than I expected, like its fellow franchise films, it’s not sure which lane to pick when it comes to the feelings it wants you to feel. I think I enjoy this franchise more than most, but sometimes The King’s Man has difficulty world-building while telling an exciting and ridiculously awesome story. There’s a bit of both here, but not enough to define the rest of the movie. 
[Grade: B]

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Writers: Matthew Vaughn, Karl Gajdusek

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson

Rated: R for sequences of strong/bloody violence, language, and some sexual material

Available: Theaters
Fun Fact: The King’s Man was delayed five times from its original November 2019 release date, because of reshoots and (more recently) the pandemic.

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