Guns, suits, and kicking ass. Those are the three pillars of Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman” series, which tracks the adventures of a secret spy organization that stops various global cabals from destroying the world via cartoonish ultra-violence and a devilish sense of humor. Both “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and its sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” revel in an obnoxious combination of mid-century British aesthetics with new school juvenilia. Vaughn’s crass version of wink-wink sophistication ostensibly updates the Bond playbook for a coarser world, but it mostly telegraphs his supposed cleverness and nostalgia-happy referentiality, all of which is bathed in excessive blood and profanity. The films’ box-office success indicates the obvious: nihilistic provocations are a cheap, but effective high.
Vaughn’s latest entry into the series is a prequel, the long-delayed “The King’s Man,” which traces the early-20th century origins of the Kingsman organization. While it explains how the Kingsman organization was founded, it doesn’t get too bogged down in mythology or callbacks. Instead, Vaughn switches up the playbook by making a remixed World War I epic that “reflects” on the nature of violence and historical chaos. In most cases, it sticks to the historical record; in others, it exaggerates motivations and invents figures whole cloth.
The film’s tone is less cheeky and more serious, especially in the first half, but Vaughn and co-screenwriter Karl Gajdusek have their cake and eat it too by doling out standard “Kingsman”-esque thrills in between heady conversations about non-violence, colonialism, and the horrors of war. Though it might seem like a self-consciously mature “Kingsman” film, rest assured, it’s not really grown-up at heart.
The two previous “Kingsman” films hinge on the mentor-mentee relationship between chav-turned-superspy Eggsy (Taron Edgerton) and elder statesman Harry Hart (Colin Firth). While Hart is like a father figure to the young Eggsy, “The King’s Man” replace this pair with an actual father-son duo whose conflicts are ideological. Well-bred aristocrat Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) becomes a staunch pacifist in 1902 after watching his wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) get killed while delivering food and supplies to a British concentration camp in South Africa. Since then, he has kept a close eye on his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), who longs to bravely serve his country at all of 17 years old.
As World War I begins to break out, Orlando strongly opposes Conrad’s desire to lie about his age so he can fight on the front lines. He tries to keep him close by letting him in on a little secret: he runs a secret network out of the house alongside housekeeper/nanny Polly (Gemma Arterton) and trusty bodyguard/servant Shola (Djimon Hounsou) that protects England behind the scenes. Conrad joins them on a mission to Russia to kill Grigori Rasputin (an unrecognizable Rhys Ifans) so he stops unduly influencing the Tsar.
Though Vaughn and Gajdusek fill up “The King’s Man” with a dizzying amount of real-life historical incident and global threats — including yet another secret cabal, only this time it’s run by a Scottish separatist who uses minions to help exacerbate the war so that England collapses — the core story involves Orlando and Conrad’s relationship, which is under strain due to Conrad’s insistence in joining the British army. Orlando desperately tries to explain the horrors of war to his son, drawing on his own disturbing wartime experiences to illustrate how killing a man also kills a part of your soul. But Conrad can’t accept his father’s teachings and refuses to hide behind his wealth and privilege while his peers die in the trenches. Orlando pulls every string possible to keep him from harm’s way, including appealing to George V directly, but Conrad evades every attempt and finds himself in the trenches just like he wanted. He quickly learns that bravery holds little purchase on this battleground.
It’s difficult not to read Orlando’s pacifism as Vaughn’s attempt to address the glib violence at the heart of his franchise. It’s not just that Fiennes successfully mines some pathos in the scenes where he states his principles, elevating otherwise middling dialogue with his refined delivery. It’s also that the violence in the first half is fairly tasteful, at least by the standards of the “Kingsman” series. Vaughn maintains historical fidelity when restaging Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, and Conrad’s trip to no man’s land while on the front lines, though broadly swiped from “1917,” feels appropriately nightmarish. “The King’s Man” isn’t exactly the most absorbing history lesson, but it’s certainly a change of pace from the hyperactive macho norm. It’s a movie that plays to the dads while trying to teach their antsy teenage boys a thing or two about the past.
Of course, this is still a “Kingsman” film we’re talking about, and it’s blatantly obvious where it’s eventually headed. “The King’s Man” might begin as the story of a pacifist who wants to save his well-intentioned son from dying for his country, but it ultimately turns into the story of a pacifist who learns that sometimes it’s necessary to kill a bunch of people to save the British empire. Vaughn pays lip service to Orlando’s beliefs at key moments, but “The King’s Man” eventually abandons them to become an over-the-top, overstuffed shoot-em-up, except with historical precedent to justify it. It’s not a surprising narrative development by any means, but it’s still quite a cynical illustration of “the ends justify the means,” even for such a cynical franchise.
Still, its political incoherence could be forgiven or at least mitigated if “The King’s Man” wasn’t generally so dull. Save for an extended fight sequence against Rasputin, which effectively mixes dance and fight choreography, and a suspenseful scene when Orlando scales a mountain, the action sequences in “The King’s Man” are predictable and unengaging. Vaughn weaves a complex web of historical and political context, befitting the intricate nature of World War I, but he too heavily relies on history to lend every scene with stakes, possibly because the characters are all two-dimensional. Fiennes and Dickinson get by on charisma, but everyone else is found wanting, especially Arterton, who’s saddled with terrible “oh, you boys” dialogue, and Hounsou, who mostly kills baddies and says very little beside for referring to Orlando as “your grace.”
There are fun performance choices on the margins — like Tom Hollander playing King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas, all of whom were real life cousins of each other — but you have to strain to pick out memorable moments. Once the film’s second half gets under way, which is overwhelmed with convoluted plot developments, chintzy CGI, and hollow triumphs, it’s easy to forget everyone’s motivations. Hell, it’s easy to forget that the film is set during World War I. (Luckily, a ridiculous mid-credits scene will remind anyone unable to remember.) Pedestrian cinematic sins they may be, but that it’s all in service of teaching a peacenik to man up and kill for country make such hogwash go down even worse.
20th Century Studios will release “The King’s Man” in theaters on Wednesday, December 22.