Director Matthew Vaughn and Ralph Fiennes have reunited a third time for The King’s Man, their prequel to 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Based on characters created by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons in their graphic novel, the prequel takes Orlando Oxford (Fiennes) back to his wife’s murder, and the events which led to the founding of the service and the transition of Oxford from reformed soldier-turned-pacifist to the fighting sensation audiences have seen in the prior installments.
After the over-the-top ridiculousness of the second film, The King’s Man comes across as reasonably, well, reasonable. Events that happened in the real world, like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the influence of Grigori Rasputin in Russia, impact the formation of Oxford’s worldview – and the relationship he has with his son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson). Oxford wants to live a life of pacifism, while also investigating the goings-on of the world secretively, even as Conrad’s sense of patriotism grows. Conrad wants to fight in the First World War, and his father continues to fight against his desires.
Oxford’s estate is spacious – one of the ways that Vaughn’s eye for filmmaking sets up the opulence of Oxford’s privilege – but it’s also tweaked by the watchful eyes of his two servants, Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shoa (Djimon Hounsou). These two serve as bodyguards, teachers, and confidants of young Conrad, and factor into the action that takes place when Oxford is pushed into the fray with the fate of the world at stake.
A shady “Shepherd” lurks on the other side of the global conflict, pushing and pulling the buttons of worldwide leaders of the various world powers like Vladmir Lenin, Woodrow Wilson, and others. Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) certainly comes across as the most ridiculous of the Kingsman enemies echoing the previous films, but for the most part, the film plays out like a B-level action film sprinkled with the sad realization that grief and pain often push us toward a life we’d rather avoid. In fact – the loss of family is what causes Oxford to renounce pacifism and take up violence again, undercutting his previous decisions, and making it apparent that vengeance too often clouds our judgment.
Fiennes’ portrayal of Oxford stands as the most solid part of the film. He’s as efficient as a violent Liam Neeson-type soldier as he is playing the grieving father, the wise counsel, the pacifying politician. He’s the reason the audience stays engaged, even if the plot ultimately doesn’t break much new ground. It just feels like the producers decided to go prequel because The Golden Circle was so preposterously bad.
Waging a war between pacificism and violence, combat with actions versus conflict with words, the safety of home and the mystery of the outside, The King’s Man finally settles on violence as the answer to the problems. It’s mathematical reality based on Oxford’s piled-up losses, but it leaves the character alone, wounded, and vengeful. That’s what makes the film entertaining, but in the end, forgettable.