The King's Man review: This mindless prequel fails at turning World War I into a superhero movie
The King's Man (2021 movie)
It's not exactly the best pun in the history of movie titles. The new prequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service breaks its main word into two. Calling this movie The King's Man is apparently supposed to denote a story that takes place in a time when there was an actual king to serve, instead of just the disembodied aura of British authority. But it's still vague, and certainly hard to convey via word-of-mouth.
What's even less clear from the title is that The King's Man is set during World War I, and treats the big-name historical figures involved in that unprecedented global conflict like superheroes (and supervillains) in a Marvel team-up movie. Its protagonist, Duke Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) is a fictional creation who, Mary Sue-like, happens to be on close terms with a remarkable number of those famous figures. Orlando is old friends with poor doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Ron Cook) and British war minister Herbert Kitchener (Charles Dance) on top of being cousins with Felix Yusupov (Aaron Vodovoz). The latter is best remembered by history as the killer of Russia's "mad monk," Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), who here sits on a shadowy council of malefactors trying to use World War I to bring down the British Empire.
Rasputin has always been a larger-than-life historical character who felt right at home in the Hellboy movies. Between that general aura and Ifans' fully-committed performance, Rasputin is definitely better-suited than most to The King's Man's funhouse vision of WWI. In this telling, the fictional Duke of Oxford and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) aid Yusupov in killing Rasputin, though the famously complicated murder is prolonged by both the legitimate magical power Rasputin demonstrates and the balletic martial arts he unleashes on the father-son duo. Yet for all that, the mad monk still ends up drowned in the icy Russian river. Though The King's Man plays fast and loose with historical details, it doesn't actually change the outcome of any events, which begs the question — what exactly is the point of this exercise?
The King's Man is not the first franchise movie to try and turn WWI into the same simplistic triumph of good and evil that its sequel World War II has been memorialized as in American pop culture. Without the Nazis to play the role of self-evident bad guys, none of these attempts have been particularly successful, though at least Wonder Woman got some mileage out of director Patti Jenkins' compelling visual metaphor for her female superhero confronting the concept of "no man's land." By contrast, The King's Man gets lost in its own contradictions and confirms the absurdity of treating the global slaughterhouse and political furnace that was the Great War like a superhero movie.
Does The King's Man think World War I was a good thing or a bad thing, overall? It's almost impossible to tell. The movie's most inspired piece of casting is to have the three European monarchs at the heart of the conflict — Britain's King George V, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Russia's Tsar Nicholas II, who were first cousins — played by the same actor, Tom Hollander. This satire of the aristocratic arrogance that placed the lives of millions in the hands of three inbred imbeciles occasionally feels worthy of Armando Iannucci… so why then does the movie come so firmly on the point that King George's monarchy must be protected at all costs? The movie's climax portrays the American entry into the war as an unambiguous triumph (since it bailed out the Brits and their allies) rather than a decision that caused the battlefield deaths of more than 100,000 Americans. How is that supposed to be celebratory when The King's Man spends so much else of its runtime mourning the tragic death of a single British soldier?
At the funeral for that soldier, Fiennes reads Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" as the eulogy. No matter that it wouldn't be published for several years; a century on, Wilfred Owen's poem still stands as one of the most brutal refutations of patriotic war propaganda ever written (and the author, who died on the battlefield a week before the Armistice, certainly knew what he was talking about), so it's understandable that director Matthew Vaughn would want to borrow those stirring lines. What's less understandable is that some 15 minutes after Fiennes delivers Owen's powerful images of needless slaughter, his character gleefully abandons his long-held pacifism to commit murder in the name of the crown.
There are other things to object to in The King's Man, such as its treatment of women (of the three female characters with speaking parts, one gets killed in the opening minutes, one is a servant dedicated to her rich master, and one is a two-dimensional seductress) and the singular Black character (it's hard to shake Orlando and Conrad refusing to even look at Djimon Hounsou's Shola writhing on the ground from injuries sustained in the scuffle with Rasputin).
But for all its faults, The King's Man is at least hilariously bad in the way that emotionless, made-by-committee blockbusters like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker are not. Some of the stylistic flair that once made Vaughn seem a promising, genre-fluent workman director are still present: Many of the shots in the climactic swordfight are filmed from the perspective of the weapons like a first-person-shooter video game, which is not something you can often say about cinematic sword fights. But now, three years deep into a subpar franchise, Vaughn's initial promise seems lost in the mires of mediocrity. D+
This prequel to 'Kingsman: The Secret Service' is set during World War I, and follows the fictional Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) as he battles a global conspiracy.