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Film Review: The King's Man

31 December 21 words: George White

Over two years after its planned release, The King's Man is finally here. But was it worth the wait?

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans
Running time: 
131 minutes

After taking what felt like a decade to come to cinemas, and following an absolute mauling from critics, it’s safe to say that this writer’s hype levels for The King’s Man weren’t exactly sky high. Yet, for all its flaws, this film marks a vast improvement on the frankly exhausting Kingsman: The Golden Circle - and a return to form for director Matthew Vaughn, a man who has made his name for combining spectacle with sentiment, and who treads that line to an impressive degree again here. 

Following Ralph Fiennes’ phenomenally-named former fighter Orlando Oxford as he reluctantly takes his son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson), on a mission to kill the frankly batshit-insane Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and prevent the First World War, this is a globe-trotting, history-rewriting action flick boasting much of the charm that made Kingsman: The Secret Service such an absolute delight. 

One extended fight scene - in which Orlando, Conrad and Djimon Hounsou’s Shola (the early equivalent of Merlin, for fans of the original films) take on the balletic, frenetic Rasputin - epitomises the high-octane, inventive action that has made this series so popular. Each clash of swords, roundhouse kick and death-defying dodge gets you on the edge of your seat, with Vaughn throwing the camera around with a joyous sense of freedom. Sure, some of the director’s choices can border on excessive and gimmicky, but overall the restless camerawork and fast-paced cuts are immersive and entertaining.

Fiennes is an utter delight throughout, combining suaveness with sincerity

Beyond the action, though, there is a surprisingly powerful story being told - and by a truly terrific cast. Centring around the Great War, the film highlights the futility of conflict, and particularly this conflict - one which cost millions of lives for little more than power and status. A damning critique of nationalism runs through the narrative, without ever feeling too on-the-nose - and for a film reliant upon violence and bloodshed, there is a commendable condemnation of violence and bloodshed.

As Conrad attempts to fly the nest and have his own adventures, namely in the form of joining the armed forces and fighting in the war, Vaughn also explores the challenges of parenthood, diving into a story of a man who cannot bear the thought of being unable to protect his son. Fiennes and Dickinson establish a believable, engaging relationship from the off, raising the stakes for the audience as danger looms. 

The former, though, is easily the star of the show. Getting the chance to showcase his emotional depth and have fun with the ageing-super-spy dynamic, Fiennes is an utter delight throughout, combining suaveness with sincerity to create a character with real depth and personality. Much like with Colin Firth in The Secret Service, this leading man is perhaps an unlikely hero, but by the final credits you can’t help but root for his success. Credit should also go to the aforementioned Hounsou, as well as Gemma Arterton as Polly, for providing enjoyable supporting performances and adding interesting dynamics alongside the central duo.

The pummeling from critics certainly seems harsh, with Vaughn throwing in much of the substance that made The Secret Service feel so fresh and fun

While the good guys are spot on, though, where the film struggles is with its enemies. Yes, Ifans is deliciously deranged as Rasputin, but The King’s Man’s big bad is painfully poor, sporting an offensively lousy Scottish accent and lacking either the unique quirkiness of Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine or the unnerving malevolence of Julianne Moore’s Poppy. Their identity is saved until the final act in a twist that is meant to make your jaw drop to the floor, but instead leaves you with your head in your hands. 

Some of the script shamelessly screams fan service, too, with phrases like “we’re Oxfords, not rogues” sending a shiver down the spine. Yet, ignoring its lack of subtlety, this is a prequel that neatly lays the groundwork for the evolution of the Kingsman organisation, tying things up nicely with a final shot that makes you want to go back and watch the original all over again.

So, while undoubtedly an imperfect film, there is plenty to appreciate about The King’s Man. Its pummeling from critics certainly seems harsh (it received a measly 42% on Rotten Tomatoes), with Vaughn throwing in much of the substance that made The Secret Service feel so fresh and fun, while crafting a story that packs more of a punch than many would expect. This may have taken an eternity to arrive on the big screen, but - despite its flaws - it’s definitely worth the wait.

Did you know? Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, and Rachel Weisz were considered for roles in the film.

The King's Man is now available in cinemas. 

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