From surprising deaths and resurrections to shocking deceptions, feints have been built into the Kingsman franchise from its first steps in 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn’s latest installment, a prequel portraying events that preface the inception of the titular independent intelligence agency, is itself a feint — one largely veering away from the cheeky spectacle that is the series’ stock in trade.
Requiring remedial knowledge of World War I’s inciting incidents and resolving to refrain from any action sequence for a solid hour, The King’s Man dares you to keep up with its plot of all things and demands that you invest more deeply in the personal tragedies that birthed the Kingsman agency than in the intrigue and excitement of its geopolitical gamesmanship. Outside of a truly hilarious mid-movie seduction scene and its full-tilt action climax, The King’s Man barely resembles the woolly-and-wild aesthetic to which audiences are accustomed.
Its commitment to comparative calm alongside The Secret Service and 2017’s The Golden Circle is almost certain to strike casual fans as willfully obstinate. Although Vaughn’s shake-up of status quo might cause some crowds to bid a farewell to Kingsman, those willing to make the turn with him will find a more muted and erudite action fantasia — something not unlike Mel Brooks with a master’s degree and a crackerjack second-unit team for the action sequences.
In theaters Wednesday after two years of pre- and mid-COVID delays, The King’s Man begins in 1902, 113 years before the series’ inaugural adventure. It introduces Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a British duke whose long military service to support colonial expansion showed him only that the spoils of war are mostly to rob, lie and pillage until someone makes you a nobleman. He believes those fortunate enough to enjoy privilege should actively help others and not hide behind status. But after tragedy rips his leg and his family apart, Orlando retreats toward steadfast neutrality in matters of war and to quiet reflection in his sprawling estate.
By 1914, Orlando’s tranquility tremendously has rankled his son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson), who’s eager to put to good use his combat training with the Oxfords’ aide-de-camp, Shola (Djimon Hounsou). As World War I turns the world asunder, Conrad becomes increasingly impatient. But Orlando has kept some backchannels open, thanks to a network of servants led by his house’s own, Polly (Gemma Arterton). On that wind, Orlando catches whispers of the Shepherd, a mysterious madman atop a craggy mountain who’s marshaling minions to manipulate the Great War to his own malevolent ends. Vaughn and co-writer Karl Gajdusek cherry-pick real-world historical antagonists to sculpt their equivalent of the 007 films’ SPECTRE. They outclass the Daniel Craig films’ efforts in that arena and also set up delicious developments for the contemporary corner of the Kingsman saga, should it resume.
One such minion is Russia’s mad monk Rasputin, whom Rhys Ifans (Spider-Man: No Way Home) plays like a Russian Rob Zombie who’s everybody’s dealer — a man so constantly bucking and fucking that even goats grow nervous and who’s busily dosing Russian leader Tsar Nicholas with both the opiate of the masses and the real deal to foment military aggression. Fearful that small things will grow into big problems, Orlando lets Conrad in on his findings, and it’s soon time for father, son and Shola to try intercepting Rasputin and shearing the Shepherd.
It takes an hour to arrive at this spot of The King’s Man. While it would seem like placing the characters amid actual events would trigger Vaughn’s gleeful-prankster instincts to treat history like a big, boutique game board, that’s not really the direction he takes. Sure, Tom Hollander plays Tsar Nicholas, Kaiser Wilhelm and King George V in a fleeting Strangelove-ian touch. Yes, Fiennes and Ifans offer a shockingly funny, wriggly tongued riposte to the latent homoerotic charge between Craig and Javier Bardem in Skyfall. President Woodrow Wilson finds himself in an amusingly uncompromising position. And the third act creates a fun piss-take variation on the impregnable supervillain stronghold, reachable only by parachute in a descent that plays out as chaotically as expected of what was then early technology.
But there is also a 20-minute stretch of The King’s Man that turns into an honest-to-goodness horror-of-warfare story involving one of its principal characters. A great deal of the rest constitutes Orlando’s drawing-room reflection on the tradeoffs involved in getting your gun up for war, in which he eloquently mulls over the meat of fighting for what’s right rather than just simply fighting. Orlando is a decent man trying to do the right thing amid haymakers of history that continually wallop him where he lives and which often hinge on petty squabbles among those who should know better to embrace and embody a more ecumenical set of values. Fiennes surely wasn’t eager to wind up in another Avengers, the dirty-word cinematic definition of that title embodied by 1998’s disastrous adaptation of the bespoke British-spy TV series. Thus, Orlando is a flesh-and-blood character who’s not just a proxy for well-dressed ass-kicking. The orations Fiennes gives for those he has lost, or will lose during the movie, would hit much harder if some of the supporting cast matched his fire, but he’s nevertheless persuasive and powerful. Plus, his righteousness also rubs up against the rampant corruption that we know will strike the Kingsman organization some 100 years on in the first film.
Don’t remember that? It’s OK. 2015 might as well be 2005 by this point. It’s hard to imagine for whom Vaughn made The King’s Man, which feels like a simultaneous reckoning with his homeland’s rotten colonial history and an intermittently rollicking spy game all its own. It’s certainly not the accountants at 20th Century Fox or its Disney inheritors. Neither is it for the casual moviegoers who remember seeing a Kingsman movie on FX once and make it their holiday-movie choice when No Way Home and The Matrix Resurrections are sold out. But it is decidedly made for the people who fondly recall the specificities and eccentricities of this little franchise as much as its cheeky violence — the ones who appreciate the gentlemanly values woven into its stitching and who hope those threads won’t get frayed by what’s likely to be feeble box office here. To use its own parlance, here’s an installment of Kingsman that’s far more oxfords than brogues.