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‘The King’s Man’ Review: Ralph Fiennes in a Serviceable Prequel to the Over-the-Top Gentleman Action Spy Series

Weaving in and out of WWI, the third "Kingsman" film is as fancifully schlocky as its predecessors.

The King's Man
Courtesy of Peter Mountain/Twentieth Century Studios

In the most outlandish scene in “The King’s Man” — if not the strangest scene of the year — Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a sneaky aristocrat who will go on to form the first British secret-service agency (and is already acting like a rogue spy), shows up for a meeting with Grigori Rasputin, the fevered mystic and demonic holy man of Imperial Russia, played by Rhys Ifans as if he were starring in a historical thriller directed by Mel Brooks.

It’s the eve of World War I, and Orlando intends to exploit Rasputin’s considerable sway over the Tsar to convince Russia to enter the war. Hidden under Christlike hair and a fuzzy black beard, eyes ablaze with eroticized cunning, his Draculoid Row-shun accent dripping with sociopathic scorn, Ifans’ Rasputin enters a gilded party like a rock star draped with goth girls. At dinner, he explains to Orlando that he can heal his bum leg; he does so by taking him to a private chamber and lasciviously licking the battle wound on his thigh. The mad monk then stuffs a British almond cake in his mouth in two bites, vomits the whole thing up (suspecting that it’s been poisoned), and proceeds to face off against Orlando and his son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson), in a leaping altercation choreographed — of course! — to The 1812 Overture. It’s a gonzo action scene, but if you told me it was the new Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade commercial, I’d believe you.

Not all of “The King’s Man” is that defiantly nutzoid. The movie, the third in Matthew Vaughn’s popular “Kingsman” series (drawn from the comic books of Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons), is a prequel to “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2015) and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (2017). Since this one is set in an earlier period, with the decorous Ralph Fiennes now in charge (Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Samuel. L Jackson, Michael Caine, Halle Berry, and Channing Tatum have all left the Savile Row building), it flirts, at moments, with having a more restrained tone, as if it were the “Masterpiece Theatre” chapter of the series. The film oscillates, rather awkwardly, between grandiose cartoon heroics and a kind of dutiful flatness. Fiennes, as a widower (we see his wife killed during the Boer War in the movie’s prologue), plays his character totally straight, which means that we’re supposed to be caught up in the drama of the fearfully overprotective attitude he has toward his adult son. But the film’s emotional center is basically a cream filling.

And it’s not like restraint rules the day. “The King’s Man” presents the eruption of World War I as the playing out of a childhood ego spat between King George, the German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm, and the Russian leader Tsar Nicholas, all of whom are played by Tom Hollander. Rasputin, in the midst of keeping the Tsar and his wife hooked on opium, belongs to a secret cabal of criminals who meet on the flat top of a giant stone mountain, where their fearless leader, who we see only from the back of his bald head, gnashes away in a Scottish brogue as he seethes for world domination.

The “Kingsman” films may be the quintessential action mashup movies that put old and new genres into the Mixmaster, playing a high-intensity schlock game of slice-and-dice. Their basic premise — an elite club of British spies, operating independently of the government — is obviously an airy knockoff of the Bond mystique. But the fact that the Kingsman organization has, as its headquarters, a bespoke shop on Savile Row, with ancient tailors in the front room, is the kind of fanciful cornball setup that takes one back to the ’60s — to the opening credits of “Get Smart” and the Batcave, to the satirically slashing bowler-hat civility of “The Avengers.” The “Kingsman” films unfold in a stiff-upper-lip British demimonde where even the most lethal espionage players are “gentlemen.”

At the same time, they’re insanely balletic forward-thinking action films. The director, Matthew Vaughn, who in 2004 made “Layer Cake” (a movie sharp enough to have won Daniel Craig the role of 007), looked for a while like he might be a true suspense-film artist, but he turned out to be a glibly talented purveyor of hyperbolic stylish kinetics. He’s good at it, but the “Kingsman” films are demonstrations of how even a grounded genre can now be whipped into fantasy razzmatazz. “The King’s Man” is an origin story that feels like a reboot, and though no one in it possesses unearthly powers, the film’s underlying model is still the team-superhero movie.

The film weaves in and out of historical events like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the spark that lit WWI; in this film it’s the result of a conspiracy launched by that villainous cabal. Vaughn turns it into a decent set piece, and when our heroes finally approach the stone mountain, with Fiennes’ Oxford parachuting solo out of a propeller plane, Vaughn’s staging is dizzyingly effective. But this is still a movie in which the showdown between good and evil turns on the vengeance taken by a very angry goat.

‘The King’s Man’ Review: Ralph Fiennes in a Serviceable Prequel to the Over-the-Top Gentleman Action Spy Series

Reviewed at AMC Lincoln Square, Dec. 6, 2021. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 131 MIN.

  • Production: A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 20th Century Studios release of a Marv Studios production. Producers: Matthew Vaughn, David Reid, Adam Bohling. Executive producers: Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons, Stephen Marks, Claudia Vaughn, Ralph Fiennes.
  • Crew: Director: Matthew Vaughn. Screenplay: Matthew Vaughn, Karl Gajdusek. Camera: Ben Davis. Editors: Jason Ballantine, Robert Hall. Music: Dominic Lewis, Matthew Margeson.
  • With: Ralph Fiennes, Harris Dickson, Rhys Ifans, Djimon Hounsou, Gemma Arterton, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Charles Dance, Daniel Brühl, Stanley Tucci.