Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander. Directed by Matthew Vaughn.
There was a joyful revisionist glee to Matthew Vaughn’s swear-filled, ultra violent take of spy movies with 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service loosely taking a Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons comic. Vaughn brought back the gleefully silly OTT extravagance of the Roger Moore era Bond movies with a plot that saw honourable but naughty Eggsy brought under the wing of Colin Firth’s stiff-upper-lip spy Harry.
The King’s Man winds the clocks back to a prelude set in 1902 where Orlando, Duke of Oxford finds horror at the heart of the British Empire thanks to Kichener’s use of concentration camps during the Boer war. When tragedy strikes, Orlando swears off ever getting involved in any conflict again, and as per his dying wife’s wishes, keeps his son from following other men’s order into war. 12 years later, and a war to end all wars seems inevitable.
From the off, co-writer and director Matthew Vaughn shows that this is to be a much more sombre affair. Gone are the exploding rainbow heads to KC and the Sunshine Band, gone is feather clad Elton John threatening to fuck people up. We begin by seeing the horrors of a concentration camp. Long before Hitler and his mob made them the-go-to of war, the British Empire had employed them for their own use. You may remember Jacob Rees-Mogg defending them on national television to zero consequence.
After this prologue, we find that the entire world is on the brink of war. Ralph Fiennes’ Orlando having suffered an injury and heart ache refuses to let his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) join in any kind of combat. Vaughn begins to law the seeds of real life events into the fiction that would lead to the Kingsman agency.
To an extent this is done with a degree of forethought, and when laying the seeds of what would become the Kingsman trademarks – Arthurian ranking, blades in shoes, common phrases – there is an element that the spy caper is at odds with the very real reality of the war. Vaughn’s Kingsman films have always had something of a political idea at their heart – the British working class are undervalued by the toffs, the US war on drugs is a smokescreen for the governmental destruction of minorities, the concept of monarchy and titles is ludicrous – but Vaughn is far too unfocused to ever fully examine these things.
Tom Hollander plays three roles – King George, Tsar Nicholas and Kaiser Wilhelm – turning the brewing conflict as a childish game of cousins who never got on and further showing the insanity of the situation. But even this is undone by the trappings of the spy-genre. A shadowy Blofeld-like figure called “The Shepherd” who gathers a Justice League of baddies from history to join his flock and unite the world in a war essentially because Scotland wants independence. We find Daniel Bruhl an monocle aficionado Erik Jan Hanussen, Valerie Pachner as Mata Hari, Joel Basman as Gavrilo Princip.
The fun, it must be said, begins well into the film when a stern faced Ralph Fiennes, concerned that stopping war is a priority, turns to his son and says “it is time to kill Grigori Rasputin”. Enter Rhys Ifans, a growling, horny, dance fighting, bakewell tart scoffing, wound licking animal of a man. His performance is the most enjoyable of the film and offers what could be the kind of man alternative history moment that people enjoy, but it’s all too brief and fleeting before Vaughn dumps us once again into another serious moment.
The film suffers from the same issue that Wonder Woman did; World War One was horrific, arguably more so than World War Two, because there was no easily identifiable villain. In both films simplifying it to a single villainous person manipulating – and England being the “good guys” – it undoes what was a moment in history that forever changed the world for the worse. A No Man’s Land sequence at night where Dickinson slugs it out with Germans should be a moment of “they’re just boys too” but thanks to scary helmets, gas masks and rain ponchos the German fighters all look like cosplay baddies and not innocents in a war of stupid cousins.
The central conflict between father and son also lacks any of the endearment of Harry and Eggsy. Fiennes is very good, and reminds us he was once in the running for Bond before he wound up as Q, but Dickinson’s Conrad is just annoying, ignoring his father’s passionate desire to keep him safe and coming across as petulant. Vaughn also raises serious questions when it comes to Djimon Hounsou’s Shola and Gemma Arterton’s Polly, both founding key forces that never get much to do expect roll their eyes and occasional kill a baddie. This push and pull happens constantly as the prequel and the war fight each other for dominance. Hounsou is as magnetic to watch as he ever, and Arterton’s casting also alludes to Bond, but by the climax Arterton, like Sophie Cookson and Halle Berry before her, is forgotten.
When the film is playful – Rasputin is a key example, or in dialogue referring to the other films “We are Oxfords” Fiennes declares “not rogues”, then the film is on top form, and no one can fault the way Vaughn stages action but there is a decided lack of care to the darker elements. The massacre of the Russian royal family is just inserted randomly into a scene. Most baffling is the suggestion that Lenin and Rasputin would have similar ideals, which is head scratching if not laughable.
What Vaughn has tried to do is admirable at times, but there’s a flippancy to how he handles the pointless deaths of the innocent. Slow motion blood splatters of trench warfare for faux seriousness undoes everything that those original films were about – a big F you to the formal respectability of the new Bond films, and a desire to capture the joy – if for you an older audience – of seeing a spy movie with blood and guts. Still, the score by Matthew Margeson and Dominic Lewis is both sombre in the right places and calls to mind the Henry Jackman scores, and Rhys Ifans is deliciously over the top, while the film is simply too frantic or pehaps mixed to ever get its point across.