You know Merlin and Roxy and Spencer and Harry, Arthur, and Arnold and Charlie and Eggsy… But do you recall the most famous King’s Man of all?
Written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, The King’s Man begins in the early 20th Century and follows the journey of Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), an English gentleman who has walked away from his life as a highly trained military officer. After his wife’s death, Orlando has dedicated his life to helping others and caring for his son, Conrad (Harris Dickerson). However, when a collection of history’s greatest villains band together in order to initiate a war that will tear the world apart, Orlando and Conrad differ in their views of how to get involved, causing tension within the home. As history unfolds before them, the global terror requires the development of the very first independent intelligence agency, which they call ‘The King’s Man’.
As a prequel/partial reboot of the Kingsmen franchise, The King’s Man is a somewhat surprising entry into the genre. Set as several decades prior to the previous films, King’s Man uses world history as a backdrop. In this way, the film takes a page out of the rebooted X-Men franchise by allowing its adventures to change the way that we understand the past by adding larger, more sinister elements. (This makes even more sense when one considers that writer/director Matthew Vaughn also directed X-Men: First Class.) Using moments such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Russian revolution and America’s intention to stay out of World War I as touch points, history is given a twist of fun and silliness and that is often a good thing. In doing so, Vaughn takes the familiar stories that we were taught in school but alters them just enough to make them seem new and exciting. Quite simply, there is something joyful about revisiting (and rewriting) history and Vaughn is clearly enjoying himself here.
At the same time though, the argument could also be made that there is simply too much happening within the film. As much as it pains me to admit it, King’s Man might have been even more successful as a series on Disney+ as opposed to a two-and-a-half-hour film. Within King’s Man, there is a great deal of character development that takes place during its runtime (including one genuinely shocking moment, which will not be spoiled here). However, because of its time constraints, the moments lack the impact they could have had. Given the amount of storytelling that Vaughn wants to include in the film, an 8-10 episode limited series might have been a better decision. While King’s Man is undoubtedly fun, one can’t help but believe that it feels rushed and the storytelling suffers because of it.
Vaughn still has a love for this world of this franchise and approaches this entry with enthusiasm. As a result of its style and bravado, King’s Man is often visually stunning, especially through its action set pieces. Fight scenes are met with similar grit and over-the-top amusement to previous films. Musical barrages of classical music help give battle sequences an element of fun and enthusiasm. Vaughn has always enjoyed allowing his creativity to fly and he continues to do so here. (In particular, battle sequences with Rasputin and a daring rescue at the Front are particularly memorable.) Blending blood splatters and pop style, King’s Man wants us to understand that there’s a madness to Vaughn’s method.
It’s worth noting as well that Vaughn continues to lean into the R-rating that has defined the franchise. While there is definitely less blood and gore here than other entries, there is enough language and disturbing thematic content to justify the rating. (For example, revelations surrounding Rasputin‘s sexuality are particularly dark.)
Having said this though, one thing that truly sets King’s Man apart from its cinematic cousins is its almost apologetic view of violence. Similar to Vaughn’s Kick Ass franchise, the world of The Kingsman films loves a good kill. This is a franchise that has become synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll bloody murder. However, this film attempts to set itself apart from other entries into the canon by giving the series an element of remorse for its wanton violence.
In many ways, while this film eventually does succumb to its more natural devices, there is a distinct sense that it also recognizes the irony. For example, while Orlando has all the skills to be an incredible killer (and has often done so), he remains committed to his newfound pacifism. Still mourning the loss of his wife, Orlando wants to protect his son from the grotesqueness of war at all costs and refuses to enter the fray when called upon. What’s most interesting about this though is that, while the film obviously eventually calls him into action, it never judges him for his commitment to life. While those in the military openly suggest that war is ‘not about giving your life for your country but rather demanding that the other country give up their lives for their own’, his passivism is held in stark contrast to the warmongering effort. There is a very real sense within King’s Man of the tragedy of violence and war and the emotional scars that it takes on a person’s soul. In fact, in an unexpected admission of the suffering incurred by those who engage in battle, Orlando openly admits that each life that he takes steals a piece of his own. While it’s not uncommon for action films to contain a character who’s wary about committing acts of violence, what makes it shocking is the fact that it comes from this particular series. (Of course, therein also lies the irony of the film. After all of these admissions about the effects of violence, King’s Man also leans into the wild celebration of it as well.)
Visually stunning and surprisingly soulful in moments, Vaughn’s The King’s Man is a welcome re-entry into the world that he created. Underneath all the wild antics, there’s a genuine question taking place taking place within this film about the revelry of war and the value of the human soul.
However, if Vaughn wants to rewrite history, one simply wishes that he had taken more time to tell his tale.
The King’s Man is available in theatres on Friday, December 17th, 2021.