The standard formula in every live-action adaptation of a Mark Millar comic (Wanted, Kingsman, Kick-Ass) is thus: reasonably ordinary person discovers he’s surprisingly good at a thing, but not quite good enough to avoid beatings. Fortunately, there exists a secret society of other people REALLY good at that thing, who will train him to be elite and do the thing against super bad guys that suddenly exist everywhere. With Jupiter’s Legacy, we got an added twist — the origin of the secret super society simultaneously intercut with new people in modern times joining them. And now The King’s Man, out today on Blu-ray, digital and 4K, pushes the formula to the next step by being JUST the origin story. Except, not quite.
See, before the Kingsman group seen in the two prior films existed as a network of elite, upper-class superspies, a network was already in place, made up of house servants to the rich and powerful. Mostly ignored as human beings, they’re able to hear important details and communicate them across a worldwide network, with aristocratic Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) providing cover. It’s a less problematic take on the 1920s trope of hero and nonwhite sidekick/”manservant” (think Lone Ranger and Tonto, Mandrake and Lothar, Green Hornet and Kato) with the women and POC actually doing most of the heroic heavy lifting.
Soooo…we’re supposed to root for this organization to transform into a bunch of uptight, extremely white Roger Moore wannabes? (No offense intended to Moore himself, who always played that kind of role wonderfully.) How is the group’s makeup more progressive in 1916 than 2020? Perhaps one can make a case that pompous Brits in suits are as easily ignorable in the modern age as servants once were. And one could be quite funny doing so. But that’s not the story Matthew Vaughn is telling. Unlike a lot of prequel movies, The King’s Man isn’t obsessed with explaining how every last detail of the present-day story came to be. Rather, it clearly aspires to become its own new period-piece sub-franchise amusing itself with alt-history. Will it amuse you? Well, that depends.
Feeling more clearly like a comic book in its nerdy details than the other Kingsman films, The King’s Man offers a World War I tale full of real events with alternate backstories. To put it simply: this is the sort of story made to entertain people who immediately recognize the name of Gavrilo Princip. And considering how few people in the presumably 18-35 target demographic even know details of the Holocaust these days, that’s one massive gamble.
Refreshingly, right off the bat this prequel dispenses with the flippant “War and torture and murdering conservative Christians is awesome!” tone of the original Kingsman, to show us that Orlando has gone through genuine trauma from wars of British colonialism. Unfortunately it does have a tough time finding a substitute. Bond-style espionage feels like the right mood at first, as Orlando and his maid Polly (Gemma Arterton) and servant Shola (Djimon Hounsou) must attempt to assassinate mini-boss Rasputin (Rhys Ifans).
After that, Orlando’s son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) goes to war, and the movie becomes a serious treatise on the horrors of trench warfare, while still trying to pull off thrilling fight moments. (1917 did it better.) Finally, it becomes a mini-Mission: Impossible, as the team tries to infiltrate a mountain fortress, with Fiennes doing a digitally assisted biplane bailout stunt similar to one that Tom Cruise apparently has been practicing for real lately.
For the most part, though, the action scenes here are of the fight choreography variety rather than vehicle chases, and those scenes excel. Rasputin’s particular Cossack dancing-inspired martial arts are a highlight, even if the movie completely hedges its bets on whether he’s an actual magician or fraud. Between these battles, however, it helps to be a history buff and thus appreciate why Tom Hollander is playing three separate major figures. Vaughn gives the whole thing a subtly sepia tone to evoke old photography, and Fiennes, whom I years ago dismissed as a dead-eyed lousy lead (avoid seeing Onegin, is all I’m saying), is now in the perfect place to play a late middle-aged hero with issues.
But this all still feels like a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be, except maybe “things Matthew Vaugh finds cool, strung together.” It’s tempting to blame Millar, especially since the villain is a Scotsman who wants England to lose the war as vengeance for the existence of Great Britain, but the Blu-ray extras make clear that this is entirely Vaughn’s vision. Mostly, it’s the backstory he created for the previous films, which he originally wanted to do as a TV series. That probably would have worked better, given the episodic feel here. But he wanted it to be epic, hence the big screen. All of this is divulged in a feature-length edit of what might normally be multiple behind-the-scenes featurettes. It is, I would say, a better approach, avoiding repetition of the same EPK stuff in multiple segments.
A thirty-minute segment on organizations helping veterans feels like a lot of virtue-signaling, congruent with Vaughn giving this movie a tonal adjustment from what he felt was a too ridiculous part 2. It’s great to see people helping injured veterans, but has nothing to do with the movie, save perhaps shielding Vaughn from charges of mocking real service. A breakdown of the No Man’s Land knife fight is better, bringing in real history and respect to the actual regiments depicted, along with the expected storyboards and concept art. The only other extra is a red-band trailer.
With a completely different sensibility from the campier, more nihilistic present-day installments, The King’s Man may not be what existing franchise fans want, while the title might put off the new fans it so obviously wants to win. Franchising necessitates such branding, but this might have gained more viewers as a stealth sequel. Or as the TV series it always ought to have been.