Forrest Gump, Kingsmen style: A review of 'The King’s Man'

Published January 12, 2022, 1:25 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

Ralph Fiennes and Harris Dickinson in ‘The King’s Man’

Coming after Spider-Man: No Way Home, here’s another film that puts fan service as a high priority. Matthew Vaughn’s two installments of Kingsman has amassed numerous fans, and it only seemed natural to give the franchise its own origin story/prequel. With no Taron Egerton or Colin Firth in sight, The King’s Man can best be described as a period adventure drama, as it takes us all the way back to the early 20th century, and has a great time freely ransacking history for all sorts of ways in which to embed the Kingsman saga, and come up with a tale detailing its genesis.

We meet the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes); who after losing his wife during the Boer war, becomes an avowed pacifist, and continuously keeps his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from enlisting. Not so easy to do, as this is the period leading to the First World War, and it doesn’t take long before the son discovers that his pacifist father is up to something – trying to keep war from happening, utilizing a secret spy organization.

They’re up against a cabal of super-villains of the era, where the likes of Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), are being instructed to sow confusion and dissent by a shadowy figure with a Scottish accent, known by his code name The Shepherd. The cabal meets on a rocky plateau, that’s zealously guarded and secure.

So what we get is the first twenty years of 20th century European history; with a surfeit of ideas that Matthew Vaughn has fun with, although it must be said that he overreaches at times. He inserts the Duke of Oxford in all these historical events, much like a Forrest Gump or Zelig, and would have us take this overt piece of revisionist history hook, line, and sinker.

‘The King’s Man’

When it’s all done in laddish fun, we have no problem with this. The actors assembled by Vaughn seen to be having great fun at this point – the notable examples being Rhys Ifans as a hilariously weird Rasputin, and Tom Hollander in a funny, triple role – he plays King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas. There’s glorious mayhem involved, and this tone replicates what made Kingsmen such fun.

It’s when Conrad still manages to enlist, and we have a longish sequence in the trenches of World War I, that a drastic shift in tone occurs, and it made we wonder whether Vaughn was himself confused about what kind of film he was trying to present. There’s nothing wrong in itself with this sequence, but it jars with the rest of the film, and somehow affects all that follows, dampening the rest of the film.

To his credit, Ralph Fiennes gives it his all as the main figure of this outing. From portraying M in the James Bond film, he’s now playing Bond himself, in the midst of the action – as Arthur, the Duke of Oxford. You’ll wonder how much of the action routines are actually done by this now 60-year-old actor, and whether he’ll be back for more.

Hyper violent, rude, and often funny, the first two Kingsmen films knew how to give the audience a good time – even if the second was in fact an inferior product. Here with The King’s Man, there’s a silly take on history propelling the narrative, but much of the spirit that made the first two films such fan favorites has been jettisoned for a more complex, mock-serious tonality to the narrative. It’s entertaining enough, but a far cry from what endeared us to the franchise.

The film opens here on Jan. 19, and I understand it’s been underperforming since it opened in other territories. If the franchise is to survive, Vaughn will either have to bring Eggsy (Taron Egerton) back, or continue this prequel series with the recruiting of Harry Hart – and let’s see what they’ll do to de-age Collin Firth. Any other narrative would spell the end of this franchise.