Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) was unexpectedly joyful. It seemed that director Matthew Vaughn took the reins from the Bond series and made it his own.
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The movie had a mystery that clearly had lots of inspiration from 007, but it still spared room for Vaughn and his creation. However, the Kingsman’s sequel, The Golden Circle (2017), was a great disappointment as it wanted to do so much that it became constantly inflated and overwhelmed. Now the director has gone back in time to create a prequel, The King’s Man, which seems to barely understand how a Kingsman movie should be. instead, it’s a strange mix between war-themed drama, Drunk History, and infrequent doses of spying. The movie seems to pursue the benefit of deep father-son tragedies but also a scene in which Rhys Ifans tongues Ralph Fiennces’ leg. However, what makes the movie a failure is that despite its characters’ craving peace, the director prefers violence.
The prologue goes by briefly and The King’s Man starts right before World War I. Nobleman Orlando Oxford (Fiennes), whose wife was killed during the Boer War with a last request of keeping their son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) safe from combat, decided to devote his life to peacemaking. Conrad, however, wanted to join the emerging war ignited by a mysterious Scotsman called The Shepherd and his criminal fellows including historical figures such as Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman) and Grigori Rasputin (Ifans). The Shepherd and his league lured European heads into World War while Orlando, together with his servants Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and his son Conrad attempted to stop the war, with Orlando also trying to protect Conrad.
The exploitation of the emotional side of The King’s Man is understandable, and in the context of war, the father-son relationship between Fiennes and Dickinson are well perceived. Though Vaughn packed his movie with action scenes, it seems that the movie is nothing but a character drama with a father not wanting to send his son to a war and the son wanting to fight to prove his courage. If Orlando’s drive is reasonable – his wife passed away on a battlefield and her last wish was to keep their son off from war – Conrad’s motive is far less convincing as it seems that he wants to fight because he’s young and hopes to achieve some personal honor.
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If not an action film, The King’s Man could be a sweet intimate drama.
Vaughn feels confident to have violence to depend on, and it did work with the spy genre, which is intensified and fantastical. However, for a war movie, this strategy just doesn’t do it. It is hard to depict war with any word other than severe and pointless, unless you are being complete absurd (like Catch-22 and M*A*S*H*), and the pathos that The King’s Man wants to take out from the relationship between Orlando and Conrad doesn’t allow absurdity. On the one hand, it’s a serious war movie and on the other, there’s this organization resembling SPECTRE where Rasputin feeds Tsar Nicolas II (Tom Hollander) with opium and licks Orlando’s injured leg to heal it. It is true that Ifans is doing “a thing,” however, the movie clearly wants to make a fun and bright character out of Rasputin. This could be fine too, but then it just doesn’t make sense to treat war scenes like in 1917.
It is quite surprising that the tone of The King’s Man shifts so significantly, given that it is the third one of the series and all of them are directed by Vaughn. You may argue that this movie is to introduce the origin of the Kingsman Agency, but the events in The King’s Man barely relate to the whole “Kingsman” franchise. If you consider the Kingsman movies as James Bond riffs with crazy villains carrying out some bizarre plans, it is somewhat off how the movie try to connect World War I, a meaningless war that murdered about 40 million people worldwide, with an angry Scotsman who wants to revenge England. It is a movie where it can switch from a fierce but well executed knife fight in the trenches to a character bewailing about the “reality” of war. Again, war can definitely be an irrational background, but Vaughn just doesn’t know how serious he should be with his own story.
The King’s Man is a movie that offers fun, but not too much fun, and its desultory storytelling nature really challenges Vaughn to settle into any route. I partly want him to forget about the pathos and focus entirely on the action and insanity since it is not only a way to criticize the craziness of war but it is also something Vaughn seems most familiar with in his movies.
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If Vaughn decides to follow the route of Drunk History, he should let audiences know they are in on the joke. The King’s Man, however, wants to get serious about a war’s expense while exploiting it for sophisticated action. Vaughn seems to be using this series simply as an action-delivery vehicle, and The King’s Man proves that he should be making fictional spy movies instead of exploiting historical tragedies.
The King’s Man will arrive in theaters on December 22nd.