09 January 2022 1463 Views

THE KING’S MAN. It’s Good. It’s Bad. It’s Both.

by James Murphy

This is an almost unreviewable film. In so far as I can genuinely see moments of merit, verging on genius.

But the whole thing is tonally illiterate and represents everything wrong with cinema, today. 

First, the good news. It is just such a privilege to return to the movies for a communal viewing experience. Yes, one can stream from home. But nothing beats the sound, the lights down, the service, the escape into another world as the curtains go up. Nothing. So it is imperative that we support as many films as we can, even if some will disappoint.

That said? Cinema was a compromised art years pre pandemic. It costs more to attend. So there is more competition, especially with alternative home video platforms in the background. That has led to certain products trying to be all things to all people. I do not believe it a coincidence that each and every popcorn fun franchise now integrates a worthier motif, subplot and moral.

And therein lies the problem with THE KING’S MAN. It wants to be a fun romp which plays with history and expands a brand. But it also tries to integrate profound meditations on loss and war and bravery. You cannot have both. Because logically, those two strands are beyond reconciliation, even in a quasi pastiche or parody.

One risks compromising the tribute to genuinely serious events and at the same time, draining the fun from the raw escapism. It is a risk perhaps worth taking but solely as a lesson in what NOT to do on film.

The result is a rather bifurcated affair that leaves one feeling neither entirely satisfied and recharged by an entertainment, nor genuinely inspired by the more serious ambitions. Shame. Pity. Missed opp, on both counts!

Imagine how much innovation and FUN was to be had in a Steampunk spy movie, backed by anachronistic idiom? THE KING’S MAN is not that film.  

The premise is simple enough. Ralph Fiennes plays an English aristocrat who swears a vow to avoid war and somehow still campaign for peace, albeit via occasional action man heroics. His son wants to fight in wars but Fiennes’ character will have none of it.

Then, from nowhere, a vast global conspiracy unfolds which leads to the outbreak of the first world war. So it is on Fiennes and co to save the day as far as they can: minimise escalations, sabotage enemy attempts at destroying Britain.

In a sense, this is precisely the flesh and blood prequel to the first two KINGSMAN movies, as set up in their lore. The first film explained how there was an international, independent spy agency, set up, in response to the losses of WW1.

BUT THAT was the point this movie SHOULD have started at: a fully formed organisation, in a WW2 set-piece. Do the ww1 stuff in the opening credits or a flashback? That would have been A LOT less murky, complex and indeed, more simplistic FUN than ANY attempt at the first war’s massacres.

Nazis are get out of jail free baddies: one can do anything to them. By contrast, the conflict of 1914-18 was NOT a good vs evil clash but a mass extinction event, devoid of moral merit. Trying to integrate its imagery to an old school adventure story is a misfire of galactic proportion.

Someone should have told writer/director Matthew Vaughn of that limitation, before he hit wikipedia and google for an index of historical figures to deploy here. He needed a Jane Goldman at his side (she is conspicuous by absence in the writing here?). Same way a Henry Jackman score would have been most welcome and is also much missed.

The danger is that one gets a kind of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen via the 1998 take on The Avengers (the latter also starred Ralph Fiennes) and that is a trap which this film falls into in places.

Muddled tone, mixed purpose, no wit to back it up. It feels on occasion like a very poor man’s BLACKADDER, just devoid of the Richard Curtis magic.


Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) is played for laughs here and thereby loses either simple menace or any pretence at complexity. If one must go historical and subversive, why not make him a good guy? Instead, we endure possibly the most excruciating gay seduction sequence in movie history. I was so revolted that I almost walked out. But I am glad that I did not.

Because there is some great action to savour and genuinely ambitious story telling on display. The trench warfare is outstanding and makes one feel a swell of regret that Vaughn did not simply make a serious film about WW1 and the bravery of those we lost. I shed a tear at the depictions.

Seriously: that impact is VERY good! But you then undo that in an instant by trying to turn Ralph Fiennes into a poundland Indiana Biggles. The man is NOT an action hero! He could have been, circa 1994. His performance in Schindler’s List is quite simply one of the greatest acting achievements in history.

And Ralph had leading man charm in The English Patient. But at some point, he lost it. I don’t know how or why, but the man is outright awkward when you place him in film like this or indeed, as M in James Bond films. And he has ZERO chemistry with Gemma Arterton here. Seriously, the man looks more at home when Alison Steadman cameos!

..Speaking of which..

..GEMMA ARTERON STEALS THIS FILM. Whilst it is a shame that they give her a silly accent and reduce her to a Maid /Matron (just make her a fellow aristo, no?) her beauty jumps off the screen. Her warmth is palpable. The sexuality, ferocity, expertise. Bit of a crush. I did meet Ms Arterton once. And I was quite literally, struck dumb. As in no words. She is THAT beautiful. And yet even that asset becomes a liability.

Because with Gemma being that fit? It makes a nonsense to then try and wow us with a separate Mata Hari cameo from a lady who, though perfectly lovely, just aint Gemma!

Incidentally, read your history. This film does a disservice, imho, to the real Hari as indeed it does many other historical figures. Which, once again would be fine were this an all out spoof/pastiche/alternate reality a la Tarantino. But it isn’t. Actual history, with actual disrespect shown for said. Not good!

In the film’s defence as a whole? There is a great pace to it. One does not watch the clock. Or at least, I didn’t. The action IS great, as are the historical atmospherics and fetish level focus on the trappings of high class clothing, country living and coming of age.

But without the visceral fun of the first two movies or the modern charisma of a Taron Egerton? Without a clear sense of definition and purpose? The whole endeavour is lost in a confused place between serious history and silly farce.

I still have great faith in Matthew Vaughn. He does suffer from that Guy Ritchie problem of at once engendering and undermining the establishment. Like a Dorm raid bully who has come into some money, rather than a genuine gentleman? These two do not ‘get’ how to integrate serious message to fun films (see also: MAN FROM UNCLE, wherein Ritchie drops a holocaust themed torture into an otherwise upbeat escapist holiday movie).

They think gangstas are fakkkin well ‘ard and yet seem to trade on the fact that neither would probably either stand up to or genuinely stand with said underworld with great efficacy.

Same way they cannot truly capture the bravery of warfare or spying at al. Not that one need be a field veteran to depict it; just that the idioms and worldviews ought to match up, and these two directors just miss nailing that needed tribute in the tones of their work, to date?

You cannot simultaneously trade off and undermine the symbolism of British gentry, empire, fortitude and decency. Sorry. But once again: a matter of simple logic. 

In KINGSMAN and its universe, Vaughn shows that ambiguity problem. There is nothing stylish, gentlemanly or cool about recycling tropes that both 007 and every second Oxford graduate did better, generations previously.

But there IS  a great merit in superb editing, action choreography and at least the beginnings of a vision and new take on old hits (see Matthew’s best: Layer Cake/X Men: First Class). THE KING’S MAN, for all its many flaws? Is part of that learning process as the filmmaker matures and I await his next work with great interest. The man COULD be another Spielberg. 

OVERALL? 7/10. B-. By no means un-missable and not even that likeable. But you will have fun in places and I guarantee it leaves you things to talk and think about. Just make sure your kids look up the CORRECT historical counterparts to the silly spin here.




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