You could be forgiven for mistaking Matthew Vaughan’s The King’s Man for a weird episode of Drunk History. This prequel to his previous two Kingsman movies tells the origin story of that ever-elusive secret organisation, and rewrites history in the process.
Set at the beginning of the First World War, the story tells of Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) – Duke of Oxford, seasoned explorer, archeologist and diplomat, who creates the Kingsman organisation following the death of his wife fifteen years earlier. He is accompanied by his teenaged son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson), who harbours a strong sense of loyalty and duty to serve his country, as well as his nanny (Gemma Artetron) and servant (Djimon Hounsou).
Boasting a committee of some of history’s most notorious figures is another secret organisation, which meets and conducts its business atop a treacherous stone mountain. Ruled by a mysterious figure seen only from behind, or lurking in the shadows, the maniacal outfit plots world domination by exploiting the rivalry between the three cousins who reign over England, Germany and Russia (yes, those kings were all related). At the table are the Russian mad monk Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), Austrian hypnotist and occultist Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Bruhl), Bosnian Serb assassin Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman), and Russian revolutionist Vladimir Lenin (August Diehl).
From this summary alone, it’s obvious that The King’s Man takes the cleverly far-fetched hijinks of the original film, shakes them up, and catapults the franchise to the dizzying heights of absurdity. It’s a very silly movie that exploits the credibility of the first instalment and leads the audience blindly into a very different type of movie altogether.
Vaughan has dived deep into the history books to bring so many notable figures and events to life, and just like Quentin Tarantino loves to do, he has revised history in order to tell his story. On one hand, The King’s Man is just a movie having fun with a historical narrative and delivering a delicious assortment of nuances for history buffs to relish. Yet on the other hand, this device detours the franchise into a cheap and kitschy arena that’s far removed from the wonderful 2014 original.
But that’s not to say that The King’s Man is without many great moments. Regardless of the movie’s shortcomings, it’s enormous fun that benefits from being seen on the big screen. Rhys Ifans’ Rasputin is a deliciously caricatured villain, who embodies all of the stereotypes that pop culture has heaped upon him, and when he snaps into fight mode, it’s a moment of absolute delight.
Ralph Fiennes is excellent, too, as the founding father of The Kingsman organisation, a character based on the great T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia, whom Fiennes portrayed in the 1990 film Lawrence After Arabia). He carries distinction and authority in a similar manner to Colin Firth’s character from the previous films and proves to be an ideal forerunner, while Harris Dickinson, Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton are serviceable as the unlikely band of heroes.
If you’re a fan of the series then The King’s Man is a curiosity worth checking out with tempered expectations. It’s not as good as The Secret Service but certainly much better than The Golden Circle, and the best advice would be to suspend your disbelief even further, disregard any geographical or historical implausibility, and enjoy with popcorn.
In cinemas: January 6, 2022
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Harris Dickinson, Gemma Arterton
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn