So much was riding against The King’s Man. For a franchise that felt like the perfect blend of James Bond and unapologetic violence and political incorrectness, it was strange for Kingsman to go backwards and have its third installment be a prequel. It felt like a sign that the writers were out of ideas. And then the delays happened. For those who counted, The King’s Man was delayed a total of six times, from November 9, 2019 to December 22 this year.
As time passed, the excitement withered. After all, it is difficult to constantly market a film that experienced such delays. Fortunately, The King’s Man shows there is still much to be excited about, for it is another fun, solid entry in Matthew Vaughn’s line-up of action comedies.
The King’s Man boldly sheds its coat of “prequel” by trying to be its own movie with its own plot. The script makes the smart decision of not giving a shit about connecting dots for the audience (a common trap prequels fall into) and trusts itself to tell a meaningful father-son story during the emergence of the First World War. Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) spends the entire first act of the film sheltering his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from the violent and political squabbling happening across Europe. It’s an understandable albeit familiar motivation, given the tragic death of the mother in the family.
But the world’s leaders are rallying and going head-to-head against each other, under the manipulation of a mysterious villain, and word has spread that a war to end all wars will happen. It is here where Oxford finally reveals to his son that he is part of a top-secret organization, aiming to keep the world safe and in balance, while maintaining no loyalty to any particular nation, better known as The Kingsman.
It is during this first half of the story that The King’s Man understandably struggles to hold its footing. Most of it is us waiting for the situation to escalate and for the members of the Kingsman to finally reveal themselves; they include Shola (Djimon Hounsou), Oxford’s trustworthy butler, and Polly (Gemma Arterton), a talented sharpshooter who “works” as a housekeeper. The film takes too much of its time to set everything in place. The experience is like watching someone set up the game of chess and watching them tediously place every single piece on the board.
Once the pieces are set, Vaughn goes all out on the zaniness and violence. Rhys Ifans charges to the foreground and steals the entire show with one of the biggest scenery-chewing (or in this case, cake chewing) performances in recent history as Rasputin. Yes, the Rasputin of Mother Russia. The action starts, the choreography goes wild and through the roof, and Vaughn’s sensibilities in letting us see everything in bizarre angles and sweeping wide shots make for a crazy, entertaining experience.
But perhaps the strongest component in The King’s Man is the actual narrative surprises along the way. The script takes a couple turns around the midpoint, which brought along sequences that I never expected to get from a movie about spies. By the time the story reaches the third act, I was won over by the film. Fiennes continues to demonstrate his remarkable ability at selling dry humor and genuine vulnerability, a contrast last seen in something like The Grand Budapest Hotel. The King’s Man was the last place I expected to see something as emotional as this, but Fiennes sells every important dramatic beat.
It all builds to a satisfying, at-times breathtaking climax that is some of the best Vaughn has put on screen. Fiennes, Hounsou, and Arterton make a great team together, with their fun banter and dedication to performing the necessary stunts and fight choreography. It would be a delight to see them put on their suits again for a sequel, and given that this film has a post-credits scene, the likelihood of a sequel (but still a prequel to the Taron Egerton films) is high. In the meantime, Vaughn messes with history in ways that favor his style and sense of humor — look out for Tom Hollander playing King George… and Kaiser Wilhelm… AND Tsar Nicholas.
Though its first half admittedly drags and takes too long to get going, the film works because of its fun commitment to altering WWI history and incorporating it with its fictional premise of spies. It brings back fond memories of X-Men: First Class and how it wove mutants into the Cuban missile crisis. The action is entertaining, the camerawork remains stylish and energetic, and the entire cast brings charisma to the screen. For a prequel that seemed to be set up to fail and fall on its face, The King’s Man confidently stands tall on its two feet and dances without giving a toss what you think. You just can’t help but applaud them and have some fun along the way.
20th Century Studios will release The King’s Man only in theaters on December 22.