The only new thing The King’s Man brings to the Kingsman series is crummy craft.
Early in the King’s Man, Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) reads a newspaper chronicling the human cost of the then-nascent World War I. The headline for all this carnage reads “When will this misery end?” It’s fitting since I found myself constantly asking myself the same question as The King’s Man dragged on and on. For some reason, a franchise that’s previously leaned heavily on anal sex jokes and Elton John beating up evil henchmen wants to get serious in the most superficial way possible.
This is director Matthew Vaughn’s attempt at a weighty blockbuster, as made clear with how the story opens in a concentration camp in 1902. Soon after the scene is set, Oxford and his son Conrad (played as an adult by Harris Dickinson), experience a great tragedy as the boy’s mother is shot and killed. Alas, the buildup to the lady’s demise mostly inspired giggles—her dialogue, which blatantly foreshadows her impending doom, reminded me of nothing so much as this Caitlin Reilly sketch.
A decade later, and Orlando is a pacifist who refuses to allow Conrad to enlist in World War I—which is in truth being orchestrated by a group of villains whose members include Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Bruhl).
Orlando knows this because he has developed an intelligence organization that is sneakily gathering information about valuable players in the war. Though he’s forbidden his son from going to the front lines, Orlando is willing to do whatever it takes to end the war. Thus Orlando, Conrad, and allies played by Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou opt to take matters into their own hands.
The King’s Man simultaneously wants to be a harrowing descent into the hell of war and a thrill-powered action-adventure. Death is a weightier matter than in the series’ previous films, which tossed away the lives of humans and pugs with aplomb. Young kids get blown to smithereens in No Man’s Land, and the picture aims to channel the mood of All Quiet on the Western Front.
But in a major miscalculation, despite emphasizing the terror of World War I, The King’s Man still wants to engage in the over-the-top carnage that the franchise is famous for. The picture’s erratic approach to violence makes its big action sequences feel like a major tonal mismatch rather than exhilarating thrill rides. It’s nearly impossible to be both a lamb and a lion. The King’s Man embodies neither animal particularly well.
The King’s Man’s shabby grimness is an absolute chore to sit through, especially since Vaughn doesn’t explore his characters or the grim time in which they live with depth. The father/son dynamic between Orlando and Conrad is particularly poorly realized. They regurgitate the same talking points at each other over and over again, ad nauseam. Nothing is learned and neither of them grows. It is exhausting.
It’s nearly impossible to be both a lamb and a lion. The King’s Man embodies neither animal particularly well.
The King’s Man’s structure is similarly odd, as is best demonstrated by a funk Orlando gets stuck in at the end of the picture’s second act. This lasts for months for the in-movie characters, but for the audience, it lasts just a single scene. Orlando’s shaved off his drunken stupor beard before it can settle in “It’s good to have you back,” his friends tell him, even though to the audience he may as well never have left at all.
The picture’s feeble gestures towards comedy are just as dire as its turgid dramatics. Somehow in 2021, someone still thinks the existence of gay men is inherently humorous. A sour running gag about Rasputin’s sexual advances on every man in his sight culminates in an extended bit about Orlando making orgasmic noises behind closed doors. Every instance of this hollow humor falls flat on its face.
Other attempts at levity were met with dead silence at my press screening. Conversations about the contents of their testicles don’t click with the tonal landscape of The King’s Man. Rather than craft comedy that works with the bleak era in which the film is set, Vaughn and Gajdusek coast on creative autopilot.
When your expensive blockbuster’s big moment brings to mind none other than The Amazing Bulk, something’s gone awry.
To compound The King’s Man’s character, narrative, and tonal failures, it is downright ugly visually—especially when deploying greenscreen tech. Vaughn has mentioned that The King’s Man is his ode to mid-20th-century epics like Doctor Zhivago. Those films used dazzling matte points and astonishing location shooting to capture locales worthy of being found in an epic.
The King’s Man, meanwhile, just opts to plop live-action characters in front of digitally created environments that they never look like they belong in. They’re screensavers masquerading as sets, from the interior rooms of a Russian castle to landscapes passing by a train window. Indeed, a key moment in the climax loses any possible tension due to how thoroughly fake it looks. When your expensive blockbuster’s big moment brings to mind none other than The Amazing Bulk, something’s gone awry.
The King’s Man action matches the rest of its visuals for dullness. Only a nighttime skirmish in No Man’s Land shows hints of inspiration. Otherwise, the period-era setting hasn’t given the Kingsman franchise much impulse to do anything bold or new with its brawls. It’s the same stylized duels laden with guns and explosions that The Secret Service and The Golden Circle deployed, but here the effects are decidedly diminished.
As for the performances, the only stand-out is Rhys Ifans delivering a go-for-broke turn as Rasputin. That’s more than can be said for the other villains, including a primary antagonist who spends most of the movie in the shadows, all of whom are a snooze. The heroes don’t fare much better—talented actors like Fiennes and Dickinson are left waiting for someone to hand them a concrete personality. A Hollywood resolution for 2022: Offer Djimon Hounsou more work than disposable blockbuster movie roles, he’s way too good for this dreck.
To add insult to injury, The King’s Man takes a cue from the likes of Artemis Fowl and the 2019 Hellboy by delivering an ending that renders the entire movie an extended prologue. Not since the Super Mario Bros. feature has a feature ended on such a crummy tease for a sequel we’ll never see.
The King’s Man opens in theaters on December 22nd.