The King's Man
Matthew Vaughn’s prequel is caught in an indecisive structure
Matthew Vaughn has single-handedly revamped the super-hero and spy genres when they seemed to have become entrenched in a formula. His Kick-Ass (2010) success was so impressive that he was even welcomed by the genre’s “elite” to direct an X-Men film. With Kingsman, Vaughn’s triumph has resulted in the creation of an entirely new franchise. Vaughn has continued with this tongue-in-cheek take on espionage with a prequel film of the agency: The King’s Man (2021).
The King’s Man takes place largely during World War I. Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) is a wealthy pacifist who is forced to create an undercover and unofficial British group to counteract a war hungry cabal led by a mysterious Scot. This results in Orlando and his eager son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) to eliminate the members of this mysterious villainous group, some of whom are such colorful historical characters like Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner).
Vaughn seemed to have an absolute blast making the first two Kingsman movies and relished at the journey of Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and his mentor Harry (Colin Firth). However, the beloved characters are replaced here by Fiennes and Dickinson’s stand-ins. This works to a certain extent, largely thanks to Fiennes’ dedicated and charismatic performance. However, you sense that Vaughn is slightly conflicted as to the structure of The King’s Man, leading to an indecisive final product.
The King’s Man seems to be at constant cross-roads of choices. Vaughn can’t seem to choose his protagonist as we are shifted to-and-fro from Conrad and Orlando, leading to an awkwardly stitched up narrative. The King’s Man is awkwardly split into three acts with the first and third fitting the wacky spy film mold, but a middle act that wants to be a brutal war film instead. These clash horribly, halting the pacing and flow of the story as it transitions. The King’s Man reportedly underwent an innumerable amount of reshoots after the studio was unsatisfied with the first cut. This seems to have jumbled Vaughn’s initial story to a confusing degree. Characters such as Gemma Arterton’s Polly, who seem to have an initial important role are completely sidelined in questionable manners. Likewise, there is a tonal conflict between a rather touching and dramatic film, and the freewheeling comedy that wants to cycle through a WWI high school history course much like a Bill & Ted film would. The result is a lazy connecting of good ideas by a weak and crumbling plot.
Vaughn does show his skill by excelling with each stand-alone act. You feel him shine when he can stage a vicious and twirling Rasputin who seemed more intent on joining the Bolshoi ballet than murdering his opponents, or a silent knife fight in the dark in no-man’s-land. The British director is very adept when he wants to land a dramatic or comedic beat, and has shown a capability to direct thrilling action, however, The King’s Man can’t seem to choose between how to combine these strengths. If the two distinct narratives in The King’s Man were separate films, they would each have been incredibly effective.
In the end, The King’s Man is a rather disappointing entry in the Kingsman franchise. A set-up for a sequel to take place in WWII is dutifully provided as per studio standards, but you sense that perhaps it was this particular studio interference that jumbled the story Vaughn wanted to tell. After such a director has delivered such a successive enjoyable number of hits, it’s a shame that executives don’t have more of a trust in him. The King’s Man provides individual scenes of brilliance and enjoyment, yet it never fully coalesces into a satisfying whole.