The King’s Man (Review): Basically Batman’s Origin, but with Spies

Suit up for The King’s Man– Matthew Vaughn’s prequel installment to The Kingsman franchise– and read ahead for my thoughts…

The King’s Man is NOT Kingsman 3– rather, a story about the Kingsman spy agency’s World War 1 origins. Orlando, Duke of Oxford, is a known pacifist and humanitarian. But, when his son Conrad insists on joining the British military, he must balance his (near obsessive) desire to protect his son with the greater good of the British empire. Meanwhile, shadowy threats emerge to manipulate The Great War from behind-the-scenes.

Right up front, I wanna say: the history buff in me freaking loved this movie! World War 1 is an era about which I know a great deal. I actually guessed at the appearance of multiple events and characters before they manifested in the plot. Though this story would fall under the banner of historical-fiction, there were many instances which were historically accurate (so far as I could tell)!

I appreciated how few scenes took place at the war-front. Matthew Vaughn didn’t forget that Kingsman is, first and foremost, an espionage franchise. In fact– global politics behind The Great War are featured more than the horrors of combat. It may not sound so exciting as watching a war film like 1917, but it offers a refreshingly different perspective on the time period. And there’s still one fantastic action sequence in the trenches, so Kingsman gets its cake and eats it too (though that cake tastes a little bitter, as I’ll explain later).

Sing it with me: “Ra Ra Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen!”

Every performer clearly had fun shooting this movie. Many of the performances are what I would call campy in a good way! These actors evidently relished their roles, and I relished watching them. Rhys Ifans’ version of Rasputin was notably creepy and terrifying and something I dare not look away from. He chewed, swallowed and digested the scenery and I loved every second of it! Going big like this doesn’t always work, but I’m here for it.

Ralph Fiennes delivered a great lead performance as the Duke of Oxford. He perfectly conveys the world weariness of a man who’s seen more than his share of horrors yet hides his distaste for bravado behind a calm, gentlemanly veneer. The Duke of Oxford maintained a compelling motivation, intriguing backstory, and a satisfying trajectory.

The biggest selling point of The King’s Man is its action! Matthew Vaughn has EXCELLENT instincts for cinematic violence. Each sequence is kinetic, fast-paced, and a general blast to watch! Vaughn lets us understand the quickness of pace with which the characters move in a moment, yet conveys how disorienting such moments would feel to their participants. Yet the camera-work is somehow never confusing or off-putting. Vaughn has made some of my favorite action movies of the last decade and isn’t letting up now!

Setting this story 100 years in the past allows us a look at the Kingsman agency at its birth. And this lets us see how different their modern counterpart became. The most glaring change: their organization grew more snobbish with time. Some of Kingsman’s founding members were servants, yet Eggsy was seen as too low-born in the first movie. All in all, I was satisfied with this peak at Kingsman’s humble beginnings.

One of my favourite moments concerned a musing on the difference between reputation and character (how reputation is the way others think of you while character is who you are, regardless of who watches). It’s a sentiment I believe in, though The King’s Man memorably delivered the idea. Mileage will vary as to whether this life lesson affects you, but it hit me right. And I wonder if, perhaps, this lesson was The King’s Man‘s entire point!

That– or maybe that pacifism and jingoism are both fine in principle but are both massively flawed. Pacifism lets those of action and little conscience walk over others. Yet sometimes jingoistic ideals are taken up for a wrong cause (like the whole first world war). So the best thing is to be a person of action and ideas who picks their cause wisely and only fights when necessary.

Peace is ideal, but sometimes you gotta fight!

There’s a healthy dose of nuance to these ideas though. Most everything I said prior has a contradiction within the film– ’cause a story about liars and assassins isn’t bound to be clear-cut. And maybe that means I simply missed the point, or the film’s execution was messy. I like to give creators the benefit of the doubt but part of me wonders…

Now we get to my critiques. First off: I wish they gave Conrad Oxford (Harris Dickinson) more to do in the plot. He seemed to have only one conflict. And said conflict worked for me at first, but then I thought to myself, “what do we know about this guy?” And I realized the answer was “very little.” Conrad seeks to join the war and serve his country, and he has a penchant for British folklore. But he’s far more dull than he ought to have been. That’s no fault of Dickinson though, as he plays his best for what he’s been given.

I also wanted to see more from Shola (Djimon Hounsou). I imagine he had an epic history before he met the Duke of oxford! But we never get to see or hear about that. And, for one of The King’s Man‘s main characters, Shola mostly serves to look cool and get a couple emotional moments– silent ones at that. Now did I dislike anything about the character himself? No. In fact, I yearned to see MORE of him

TKM’s pacing is off as well. Each sequence felt good in isolation but the overall plot dragged. I believe relevant story information could have been communicated more efficiently.

My biggest gripe with The King’s Man is that it (seemingly) couldn’t decide what kind of movie it wanted to be: Vaughn seemed to aim for a grounded, gritty, serious emotional family story with a World War 1 backdrop. But then you have this James-Bondian secret society of villains who feel like they belong in a completely different story– something more like the other Kingsman movies. And the entire third act of TKM is an action-packed spy thriller. It’s like watching 3 separate genres come together in a way which doesn’t quite mesh.

I see what Matthew Vaughn was going for here. Since The King’s Man was a prequel about the spy institution’s origins, they intentionally held off on the most Kingsman-like set pieces until the very end– so the aspects we expect from this franchise are steadily built-up. I appreciate the idea but it didn’t translate so smoothly from page to screen.

For its riveting action and filmmaking craft (plus a decent story), The King’s Man is Worth a Watch.

Should Matthew Vaughn continue to make historically-set Kingsman movies alongside the modern day story? What did you think of The King’s Man? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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