I love the Kingsman movies.
While I was never a fan of the original Mark Millar comic, the films did a great job establishing their own identity. Both Kingsman The Secret Service and Golden Circle are fun spy films that combine the class of old-school espionage films with a modern edge and cartoonish charm. The King’s Man, acting as a prequel about creating the titular Kingsman spy agency, sees the franchise at its most ambitious. Its scope is higher, as we see it tie the Kingsman with the brutal history of World War I. I admire writer/director Matthew Vaughn for how far he’s taking the franchise, but he sadly doesn’t stick the landing.
The King’s Man has an absolutely fantastic plot. A mysterious Scottish criminal mastermind assembles a team of international criminals and warlords to start World War I out of revenge against the British for their treatment of Scotland, and it’s up to spy Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) to stop him. That type of bonkers plot is perfect for a Kingsman movie. The film does a great job establishing the size of World War I and how far this mysterious warlord’s influence is throughout the war. Frankly, all the villains in the film are excellent. While I can’t say who plays the mysterious Scotsman, because I don’t want to spoil, the actor playing him does a great job making him entertaining and ruthless. His team of rogues are all fun, made up of the more wild evildoers of world history. Daniel Brühl as Erik Jan Hanussen is great, basically playing a more comic book accurate version of his Zemo performance from Captain America Civil War. My favorite performance was Rhys Ifans as Rasputin, who dives into his role like Rasputin in a tub of booze. The Kingsman movies have always had memorable villains, and these guys are no exception.
Ralph Fiennes is charismatic and compelling as Orlando Oxford. He carries a sense of gravitas and history with his role. His supporting team is also great. Djimon Hounsou is incredibly cool as the mysterious and fierce Shola, and Gemma Arterton is fun as the resourceful Polly Wilkins. I loved seeing how Polly helped create the Kingman network using the servants, maids, and janitors of federal agencies and world leaders. However, neither of them gets as much development as they should. I wanted to see them build their network and reveal more of their character, but their development is minimal, only memorable thanks to the actors’ charisma. Instead, the film mistakenly focuses on its most boring character with the blandest performance in the film, Conrad Oxford, played by Harris Dickinson. Dickinson’s performance is as dry as a block of wood, rarely giving more than a moderate inflection. He doesn’t feel like a lead in Kingsman; he feels like one of the preppy bros that Eggsy competed against to join Kingman in the first film. His character motivation is incredibly light, he’s not fully developed, and he has zero charisma throughout the film. There’s a scene where Conrad is on a mission with Orlando, where Conrad tries to honey pot Rasputin. Rasputin rejects Conrad’s advances, saying he wants to talk to his father instead. Conrad apologizes, asking if he offended him, and Rasputin responds, “only if you find being boring offensive.” I have never identified with a villain more in my life. I, Rasputin, do find being boring offensive.
I don’t mean to be too harsh; after all, I know Harris Dickinson can give a good performance, I’ve seen it myself in The Souvenir Part II this year, but his problem is reflective of the biggest problem with The King’s Man, it’s littered with cliches. Even though the story is crazy and imaginative, the plot and character arcs are so predictable that it robs the story of its fun. You can easily predict Oxford’s character arc within the first three minutes. Every story beat hits with a resounding thud. The Kingsman franchise was always known for being self-aware, playing with cliches and subverting them, but The King’s Man leaned on cliches, used them as a crutch; that’s a big difference. It doesn’t help that the editing in the film is very choppy; I can feel the chunks of the film cut out.
The King’s Man feels like a huge missed opportunity. There’s a lot in the film to like, and I’m confident it will have its fans, especially among those invested in the franchise. But it feels like a strong step back, especially from a franchise that’s based so firmly on its daring and inventive spirit. There is a post-credit sequence, a good one. I want to see where this story goes. I just hope the writing is more substantial next time.
The King’s Man will be released in theaters on December 22nd