Matthew Vaughn returns to the franchise he began in 2014 with the unexpected runaway hit “The Secret Service”. While “The Golden Circle” was definitely a change of pace as a sequel and was far less well-received, “The King’s Man” takes us back in time to the founding of the independent spy agency – with mixed results.
The King’s Man opens on Ralph Fiennes’ Lord Oxford, as he visits General Kitchener during the Boer War. After an ambush gone wrong results in his wife’s death, Oxford swears off fighting altogether, becoming a pacifist. Fast forward 12 years, and this has become a real problem – with the seemingly inevitable outset of war in Europe, Oxford’s position becomes increasingly untenable.
Things are complicated further when King George relays a message to Oxford from Kitchener, asking his assistance specifically. The general is concerned about the growing influence of Russian mystic Rasputin on the royal family, and he asks Oxford and his team to infiltrate the palace and know more about him. What follows is a game of cat and mouse as Rasputin receives his new guests with a smile – but an undercurrent of suspicion.
Revolution & War
The King’s Man concludes with a spectacular fight scene, retelling one of the most famous urban legends of the 20th century. It displays the many deaths of Rasputin – through a balletic action movie sequence. Rhys Ifans brings his A-game to this portrayal, his campy, moustache-twirling villain is definitely the most fun character of the film.
And his death, unfortunately, grinds the film to a halt. It almost feels like there are two films here; the Rasputin story and the World War 1 story. They feel fundamentally disconnected and the film can be split into two halves. The second half has a morose, downer beginning, which makes the middle of the film sag noticeably.
It’s not until Oxford is brought out of his funk by the people around him that the film picks up steam again. After they discover the war in Europe is the result of machinations from a shadowy figure known as “The Shepherd,” Oxford and his team locate their secret hide out and confront those responsible.
Less Secret Service than Bungled Attempt
While there are certainly aspects of the special formula that made the first film so successful, unfortunately The King’s Man suffers from a tonal dissonance problem that leads to the film’s downfall.
I am of course talking about Rhys Ifans’ Rasputin. If the film had made him the main villain and focused the plot on him being the brains behind the secret organisation determined to plunge Europe into war, it would have made for a far more effective piece of cinema.
However bafflingly, The King’s Man is split in focus. The first half concerning the investigation of and confrontation with Rasputin, and the latter half focuses on the exposure of the “real” villain. This is made even more problematic by the fact the actual man in charge is about as charismatic as wet cardboard, and Ifans runs circles around him for every precious moment he’s on-screen.
Less than The Sum
However, this tonal dissonance aside, there’s a fair bit to like in this film. Most of that comes from the performances. Of course, the aforementioned Rhys Ifans towers over proceedings with his unhinged portrayal of the most famous Russian mystic. But Ralph Fiennes ooze poise and prestige as Oxford… Playing a similar role to Colin Firth’s in the first film.
He’s backed up by a considerable supporting cast. Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton play his manservant and housekeeper (on the surface). Hounsou, for the first time in a while, is given something to do beyond shout and play a generic bad guy. Faring less well is Harris Dickinson as Oxford’s son; around whom the central emotional arc of the film is crafted. But it is difficult to care as the relationship between father and son isn’t very well fleshed out.
All this is accompanied by Vaughn’s proven flair for the visual; the expected kinetic action sequences are still a staple of the franchise. However, the glue holding them together has, unfortunately, become less strong with each successive entry. There’s a good film hiding here somewhere. It just needs to be consolidated into one plot, with one villain and a clear purpose. The meandering second act lets proceedings down and ultimately makes the film flat.
The King’s Man is streaming on Disney Plus and is still playing in select cinemas.
Check out the trailer below:
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