‘The King’s Man’ Throws a Few Good Punches Before Getting Lost in the Fog of War

The King’s Man” has the strange distinction of featuring a very funny, entertaining idea for about its first 20 minutes. As with most new action movies these days, this is yet another prequel to a franchise. Director Matthew Vaughn scored a surprise hit with 2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” a comic book adaptation about a secret society of “gentlemen” who save the world from evil doers with their charm, assassin’s skills and umbrellas. It was a cheeky entertainment letting Colin Firth be himself while knocking some bad guys around. “The King’s Man” rewinds the action back to World War I for some wild historical revisionism. It also wants to be taken very, dreadfully seriously. Vaughn wants us to chortle at a cake-gobbling Rasputin and then meditate on the horrors of war before laughing at someone’s body splattering down a mountain. 

The screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman feels like a game of racing through Wikipedia. First we open during the Boer War, where the Duke of Oxford, Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) witnesses the death of his wife during a shootout. Years later Oxford and grown son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) work as spies/bodyguards as “kingsmen” for King George (Tom Hollander). Evil is afoot in a mountain hideaway where a mysterious Scotsman, The Shepherd, wants to avenge the ill treatment of Scotland by England by provoking a major conflagration between the world powers. His first move is to send a brainwashed acolyte to assassinate Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand during a visit to Sarajevo. Oxford and Conrad just happen to be there, riding with the Archduke when it happens. History buffs know what follows as World War I soon erupts when the major European states clash. As war rages the first task for Oxford is to stop a plan by The Shepherd’s Russian agent, the mad monk Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) to convince Tsar Nicholas II (Hollander) to pull out of the war, thus leaving England vulnerable to a German attack.

“The King’s Man” feels like it is two movies cut in half. The first movie is the introduction of Oxford and Conrad and ends after they engage in a hilariously entertaining fight with Rasputin. This may come as an odd surprise to viewers since the Rasputin angle has been emphasized so much in the ads. It isn’t hard to see why considering it is the strongest section of the movie. In these moments Vaughn reaches the same absurdist action heights of the first “Kingsman.” Ralph Fiennes, fresh off his turn as M in the James Bond movies, is an easy fit for an elegant spy in a fine suit. Rhys Ifans virtually chews all the scenery as a tall, long-haired Rasputin out of a B-movie, who walks into parties with women locked around his arm and apparently has real black magic coursing through his fingers. The movie’s high point is a scene where he tries to brainwash Oxford, gobbles a poisoned pie and licks a scar on the spy’s leg to heal him. An ensuing battle to the 1812 Overture is slapstick ballet that the rest of the movie just never tops.

After defeating Rasputin the rest of the plot becomes a strange mishmash of tones and twists. Vaughn seems to want to make an anti-war pro-war movie. His characters want peace but Conrad rushes to sign up to hit the trenches. The Shepherd has quite the connections because after Rasputin is defeated, he then enlists Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (August Diehl) to go start the Russian Revolution. Ironically, as any historian will tell you, whatever his faults, Lenin’s move to pull Russia out of the war was quite popular with the people. This shouldn’t matter in a comedy, but Vaughn then follows the Lenin material with a dreary, extended moment involving Conrad fighting in the trenches of World War I, with full despair, blood-curling terror and haunting images of men in gas masks stabbing each other. It’s like “1917” spliced into a copy of Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part I.” 

A rather shocking, unwise killing ends the movie’s depressing middle section and the rest goes into action autopilot. “Kingsmen” works best as a riff on the Bond films and Oxford would be quite entertaining in a better movie. Djimon Hounsou also appears as Shola, the Alfred-like butler who also doubles as the spies’ main backup in all necessities. Their big climactic adventure in the third act is pulled off with a bizarre mix of moody photography and an absurd twist involving the Shepherd plotting to steal a can of film showing U.S. President Woodrow Wilson getting a blowjob. Apparently this is the only way to convince Wilson to enter World War I. The first “Kingsmen” ended with a POV of Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), Colin Firth’s trainee, about to have anal sex with a gratefully rescued princess. Yet that film maintained its wacky tone from the first frame to the last. “The King’s Man” wants you to laugh at Wilson on a sex film reel and then contemplate the Great War with the urgency of Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun.”

“The King’s Man” feels like many ideas splattered on a wall without much coherence except the need to be goofy with various historical names. Conspiracy theorists will probably take the final scene all too seriously, when Lenin is introduced by another mysterious villain to a particular, mustached German who will help spread more global chaos. Oddly enough, there’s no sign of Trotsky or Stalin anywhere in these scenes. Overall, it would be more enjoyable as silly popcorn antics if the film had stuck to the Rasputin material. He is the only truly entertaining villain in the entire movie. The rest is forced, crammed filler to finally end on Oxford establishing the rest of the secret organization that defines the other movies. There was also no need for this to be 2 hours and 11 minutes long. This is an action movie that feels too long because it was really over before even hitting the middle section.

The King’s Man” releases Dec. 22 in theaters nationwide.