Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service may not have been an ideal piece of Studio entertainment, but at it least took a hyperviolent, cartoonish spy pastiche and offered up all of the staple pleasures of a James Bond movie (gadgets, suits, bizarre henchpeople, megalomaniacs with goofy master plans, etc.) in a less pseudo-realism approach that’s come to define much of the Daniel Craig era. Its sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, delivered more of the same with much more diminishing returns: It was longer, louder, more vapid, more ludicrous, and also something of a reactionary mess. The Golden Circle’s structural and pacing issues are only exacerbated in The King’s Man, the lethargic early-20th-century-set prequel that unsuccessfully attempts to resurrect the mishmashed imperialist, monarchist fantasies of an earlier era with a contemporary gloss. It’s Kingsman without the namesake ingredient; without the sex and pop culture jokes; without Colin Firth or high-tech gizmos.
Instead, the job of “classing up” the material falls on Ralph Fiennes, a perverse choice for the role of the reluctant action-hero spy. He plays the Duke of Oxford, an English aristocrat and decorated colonial veteran who becomes a pacifist for good after his wife is killed by the bullet of a devious Boer. With the help of loyal servants Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), he has raised a son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson), who is skilled in the fighting arts and eager to join the military, despite the disapproval of his dad. As it happens, the year is 1914, and a shadowy villain has assembled an international conspiracy of malefactors — among them Grigori Rasputin, Mata Hari, Gavrilo Princip, and even Vladimir Lenin — to plunge Europe into a mayhem and sow worldwide disorder.
Will Oxford, who has all the right skills for the cloak-and-dagger business, be able to stop them? No, not really: World War I still happens. Though ostensibly an action comedy, The King’s Man takes almost an hour to reach its first real action set piece, and little that occurs in that time could really be classified as “funny.” Instead, the film’s long opening act plays like a misplaced jumble of intrigues mixed with stultifying father-son drama and monologues about the importance of noblesse oblige. Various historical figures make cameos; Oxford’s commitment to pacifism is tested; the plot lurches in different directions. The film’s one good history joke — the casting of Tom Hollander in the triple role of King George V, Tsar Nicholas II, and Kaiser Wilhelm II — turns out to be a squandered stunt; and the one scene where a horny, bisexual Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) licks the pantsless Oxford’s war wound memorably plays like a bizarre tribute to David Cronenberg’s Crash.
One almost wishes that the entire film had the strangeness of the Rasputin sequence, an overlong chunk of the film that climaxes with the unkempt Russian mystic fighting Oxford, Conrad, and Shola with the help of his ballet moves. For the most part, Vaughn’s flashily frenetic direction, with its match cuts and dull VFX transitions, bumps up to a slog of a script that entirely presumes its audience is emotionally invested in its characters by just having them appear on screen. Gleeful, gruesome violence has been one of the more memorable aspects of the Kingsman movies, yet it’s pretty much no where to be found here, not even in the film’s eventual jump into no-man’s-land.
Of course, this is still a Kingsman film we’re talking about, so even with the cartoonish violence not entirely present, it’s still blatantly obvious where it’s eventually headed, as it becomes an overstuffed shoot-em-up filled with convoluted plot developments, chintzy VFX, and hollow triumphs — it even becomes easy to forget everyone’s motivations. Still at least the movie carries the concept of a supervillain who’s hellbent on Scottish independence. But even with something as goofy as that, The King’s Man still can’t figure out what to do with that idea, apart from having the largely unseen bad guy yell a lot in a Scottish accent. Like so much of the film, it’s trying to have it both ways — to be idiotic and clever at the same time, and coming across mostly as the former. Trudging awkwardly between an inconsistent tone and overbearing loads of plot, The King’s Man strives for a slight change of pace but is more just frivolous and flat.
The King’s Man is playing in Theaters natonwide