Matthew Vaughn‘s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014) was the perfect mix of action, silliness, and comedy.  It gleefully played with 007 tropes while still serving up some remarkable fight scenes.  Vaughn‘s 2017 follow-up, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” took everything that made the first one great and amplified it.  As a perfect example of “too much of a good thing,”  the movie was too silly, too over-the-top, and the action was absolutely cartoonish.  Matthew Vaughn has now chosen to go in the opposite direction with “The King’s Man,”  a surprisingly serious prequel to the series that spans from 1902 through the end of World War I.

The movie opens near the end of the South African War.  Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) is checking in the inhumane treatment of prisoners at a British Outpost when they are attacked by Boer Guerilla fighters.  During the skirmish, Orlando is shot in the leg, and his wife is killed in front of their young child, Conrad.  With her dying breath, Orlando’s wife makes him promise to keep their son far from conflict, so that he will never share the same fate.  Orlando takes this promise very seriously, and jumping forward 12 years we see he’s raised a very capable, yet painfully sheltered teenage son.  Conrad (Harris Dickinson) longs to have the same military recognition that his father is known for, but he’s barely allowed to travel unsupervised.  Orlando eventually allows Conrad to accompany him on a trip he’s commanded to make by the Field Marshal Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance).   There are concerns of a possible assassination attempt in Austria and they are being sent to warn the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  It goes about as well as you’d expect.  If you’re noticing a trend here, yes, the outline for this film reads like a WWI history class syllabus.  It is absolutely crammed with real people and real events including the sinking of the HMS Hampshire, the Zimmermann Telegram, and manipulation of the Russian Empire by Grigori Rasputin.

Since a surprising amount of this history isn’t covered in the public school system, the first half of the movie often grinds to crawl as it provides backstories on many of the characters and events of the early 1900’s.  It’s not till this pseudo-fictional version of Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) appears that the movie begins to find its footing. Rhys Ifans absolutely disappears into this bizarre and fascinating character, and has the fortune of appearing the best action sequence in the film.  Even though the movie is sometimes bogged down by tying itself to historic events, it can be quite entertaining when the lines between fiction and truth begin to blur.  You might be surprised which events referenced in the assassination attempt on Rasputin are actually true.

Matthew Vaughn excels in crafting unique action sequences and although there is nothing here that can compare to the Church Fight in “The Secret Service” he still keeps the altercations feeling fresh.  “The King’s Man” is a big improvement over “The Golden Circle” but could have been a lot better if it was 30 minutes shorter and didn’t take itself so seriously.  What started as a parody of James Bond shouldn’t end up feeling like a world history lesson.


The King's Man