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The King's Man review: Kingsman prequel film is a tonally jarring slog

The latest film in the gentleman spy franchise is an unwieldy blend of serious war drama and incredibly silly alternate history.

Harris Dickinson and Ralph Fiennes in The King's Man
Published: Tuesday, 14th December 2021 at 5:00 pm
A star rating of 2 out of 5.

The Kingsman franchise, it has to be said, is rather an odd beast. When the first film in the series arrived back in 2014, it was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike – a stylish blend of energetic action and playful comedy that, bar a few missteps, was extremely entertaining from beginning to end. Then came a sequel in 2017, which opened to far less positivity: by playing up the crassest impulses of the first film without offering anywhere near as many thrills, it looked like the franchise had stopped in its tracks just when it should have been taking off.

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Now, four years on, Matthew Vaughn is back with a third entry in the series, albeit one which differs a great deal from both previous instalments. The King's Man, which is released in UK cinemas on Boxing Day, serves as a prequel to those earlier outings, telling the origin story of how the 'gentleman's intelligence agency' first came into being. The organisation, it turns out, had its roots in the First World War – and so we follow an assortment of characters as they interact with both real events and completely imagined global conspiracies, meeting a few larger-than-life versions of historical figures along the way,

The key player is Ralph Fiennes' Orlando Oxford – an upper-class Englishman whose steadfast pacifist and anti-empire stance can be traced to an incident in 1902, when his wife was killed in front of his young son Conrad in South Africa. Now, 12 years later, Conrad (Harris Dickinson) is desperate to join the war effort, but Orlando isn't having any of it – and goes to great lengths to protect him from so much as witnessing a violent act.

Meanwhile, a group of fearsome criminals, headed up by a ruthless baddie with a love of animals and a terrible Scottish accent, are hatching a plan to manipulate rising tensions in Europe to their own ends. Their goal? To bring about a global war and ultimately the destruction of England. The ring leader, whose identity is deliberately withheld from the audience, pins much of his plan on the efforts of notorious Russian monk Grigori Rasputin – who is played here as a kind of deranged supervillain by Rhys Ifans.

During the endlessly long set-up, we're also treated to a history lesson about the relationship between King George V and his cousins, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (all three played by Tom Hollander), while other real figures such as Herbert Kitchener (Charles Dance) and Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl) and a couple of trusty fictional servants (played by Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou) are also introduced. 

The King's Man's first problem is that there's just far too much going on in these early stages, with the film taking an awful long time to pick up any degree of forward momentum. Vaughn has deftly juggled multiple plot strands in the past – just think of his excellent fantasy adventure Stardust – but he's not nearly so successful here, and the first act plods along in a rather muddled and messy manner, making for an experience that is at best confusing and at worst plain dull. It's not helped by the fact that Conrad, who takes centre stage for much of these early chapters, is a fundamentally boring character – more a fault of the writing than anything to do with Dickinson's portrayal.

But the film's biggest issue is that the whole thing is just so tonally jarring. Vaughn awkwardly attempts to mix serious war drama with incredibly silly alternate history, and the result is something that feels like two completely different films forcefully sewn together, certainly not the tailored fit you'd expect from Kingsman's Savile Row store. It's also rather clumsy in its approach to history, with a rather half-baked attempt at anti-empire politics that doesn't really engage with the issue.

This means that even when there are enjoyable sequences – such as a bonkers action scene that sees an unhinged Rasputin blend swordplay and Cossack dancing – it all feels a little hollow, and makes it all the more bizarre when the tone switches back to that of a stuffy war film. There are some scattered pleasures here and there – Fiennes is always good value in the lead, and the final act is of a higher standard than the rest of the film – but none of these factors are enough to save it from being a rather unwieldy mess.

There are two more Kingsman films already in the works – both a sequel to the main story and a spin-off based on the American agency Statesman – but frankly, I'm not sure how much appetite there really is for the continuation of this story. This feels like a franchise that has already run its course.

The King's Man is released in UK cinemas on Sunday 26th December 2021. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide or visit our Film hub for all the latest news and features.

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