Love them or hate them, the first two Kingsman movies, Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, reveled in a giddy, stylized brand of hyperviolence that made them stand out from more traditional spy films. However, the third entry in the franchise, The King’s Man, lacks its predecessors’ sense of irreverent fun. Part of this is because this isn’t a continuation of the story but a prequel set a century before the first film about the origins of the Kingsman agency.
The movie, which is once again directed by Matthew Vaughn who also co-wrote the screenplay with Karl Gajdusek, revolves around Ralph Fiennes’ Duke of Oxford, a pacifist who’s driven by a promise to his dying wife to do everything in his power to keep his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from going to war. But it’s the cusp of World War I and Conrad is determined to show his courage on the battlefield.
To distract him, his father lets him in on the secret spy work he’s been engaged in with his bodyguard Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and his head of household Polly (Gemma Arterton). Oxford brings Conrad along as he attempts to thwart the coming war, putting the small team smack in the middle of events with real-life figures including Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Ron Cook) and Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans). At the same time, a shadowy cabal is working behind the scenes to ensure the war not only happens but that it leads to the fall of Great Britain.
While the film has a number of intriguing elements, they don’t mesh especially well. Earnest father/son squabbling, brutal battlefield scenes, and moments of genuine tragedy and heartbreak make The King’s Man a much more serious outing than the first two installments. Yet, these are mixed with periodic humor and the cartoonish fighting and creative blocking and camerawork that made the first two films so memorable, leading it to feel like the story can’t decide if it wants to be a commentary on the terrible toll of war or another blast of over-the-top action and adventure. As a result, the movie swings from 1917-style realism to cheeky sendup, creating a jarring tonal mishmash that the characters are never sympathetic enough nor the action and comedy sharp enough to smooth over.
Despite that, the movie has several things to recommend it. For history buffs, it’s fun to see the way the story grafts a fantastical fictional plot onto real history. Having Tom Hollander play the rulers of Britain, Germany, and Russia is an especially clever touch, even if the movie doesn’t take the joke quite far enough. In addition, the performances, especially from Fiennes, are solid throughout, and make the movie watchable even in its most questionable moments.
Furthermore, the film includes an especially outlandish action sequence featuring Ifans’ Rasputin that’s sure to satisfy fans of the previous Kingsman movies. When Oxford and his team travel to Russia with the goal of bringing down the historical bad guy, they find it far more challenging than they initially expected, and Oxford, Conrad, and Shola have to go up against the preening Rasputin together as he dances, twirls, and high-steps his way through the fight. Rhys’ characterization of Rasputin is so exaggerated it’s a bit like he’s beaming in from a different movie, but the extended fight scene has a lively inventiveness that makes it the most entertaining and exuberant part of the film. The King’s Man is far from the apex of this franchise, but it’s still diverting enough to keep curious fans happy.