Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman franchise is not for everyone. It lies somewhere at the intersection of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, James Bond, and Austin Powers and it marches to the beat of its own drum. With The King’s Man, Vaughn takes audiences back in time to the onset of World War I, to give the origin story of Britain's most elite and aristocratic gentleman spies. The King’s Man is not a true-to-life war film, but it is a piece of historical fantasy and it does it so well.
The cast of The King’s Man is stacked with a real who’s who of performers—with half of the cast bringing to life historical figures and the other bringing to life Vaughn’s cast of characters. Ralph Fiennes stars as Orlando Oxford, the founder of the Kingsman intelligence agency; Harris Dickinson plays his son Conrad, who comes of age during this contentious period of history; Gemma Arterton plays Polly, a housekeeper-turned-spy; Djimon Hounsou plays Shola a longtime friend and employee of the Oxford family; and Matthew Goode has a very minor role as a soldier.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Tom Hollander is playing triple duty as three world leaders (King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas); Rhys Ifans brings to life the sinister and outlandish Gregorio Rasputin; and Daniel Brühl appears as Erik Jan Hanussen who will undoubtedly make a future appearance in the Kingsman movies, as any student of history might suspect.
At its core, the film is about a widowed father (Fiennes) trying to protect his son (Dickinson) from the horrors of war, while his son feels the call of patriotism. There’s a very compelling undercurrent about how ridiculous it is to sacrifice your life for your country, how irrational colonialism-driven war is, and how you should never trust politicians. It also takes the very complex geopolitical crisis of World War I and plays it off as an egotistical and childish spat between cousins, which ironically isn’t too far removed from the truth. Some of these veiled commentaries get a little lost in the over-the-top action, but others were pointed enough that the audience knew to snicker at how accurate they were.
If you are looking for a gritty war film you will certainly get that at the midpoint of the film, but The King’s Man is truly just unhinged absurdity for the majority of the film. If you have ever wanted to see Rasputin lick Ralph Fiennes’ leg, then I have some good news for you! Perhaps it’s equally as unhinged to say that this might be the best performance of Rhys Ifans’ career, but it’s the honest truth too.
The King’s Man is a chaotic film that packs a tremendous amount of history, action, heart, and plot into the span of roughly 130 minutes, which might seem daunting to most audiences. However, Vaughn has a real knack for fast-paced storytelling, clever scene transitions (the mustache to mustache one was my favorites), and keeping everyone engaged with the most absurd romp of the year.
It’s a shame that The King’s Man arrived so late in the season, because the stunt team on this film deserves all of the accolades on the award circuit for what might be the best stunt work of the year. From the astounding (and sometimes confounding) choreography of Rasputin’s fight with the Oxfords, set (of course) to the “1812 Overture” to the gut reaching war scenes, and the final showdown between Oxford and Shepherd, this film has a fight scene for everyone. It delivers big fights and even bigger plot twists.
Speaking of the epic finale, I would be remiss not to mention the star performer. The real unsung hero of The King’s Man is a cashmere goat who lights up every scene that he’s in. My apologies to Milo the Goat from Shadow and Bone, you had your time in the limelight, step aside and make way for this heroic cashmere goat.
The production design, as a whole, was a sumptuous feast for the eyes that made sense out of the unmitigated chaos of the film, but ultimately my favorite component was the costume designs by Michele Clapton. I would like to send a fruit basket to every costumer who looks at Daniel Brühl and thinks “this man needs a fur collar on his coat and cape.” Because, same. Jokes aside, the costume work on this film is really stunning—from replicating the costumes of the rulers, to outfitting Rasputin’s rock-star esque aesthetic and goth-girl harem, to the lavish costumes of ballrooms and pedestrian-filled street scenes.
I have a love-hate relationship with The Kingsman franchise, specifically: I loved The Secret Service and I hated The Golden Circle. Surprisingly, The King’s Man fully justifies itself as a prequel to the first pair of films and, if the end-credit scene is any indication, it opens the doorway for more historical retellings, shoehorning the Kingsman intelligence agency into some of the best and worst moments in history. Matthew Vaughn knows how to write and direct ridiculously fun films—if my long-standing love for Stardust is any indication. The King’s Man is not a perfect film, and it’s not for everyone, but it is a fun film and my complaints are far and few between.
The Kingsman franchise has always been known for its no holds barred storytelling, outlandish plot lines, ridiculous flare for panache, and its willingness to go where other films will not go. The King’s Man takes all of that and boils it down to its most sensible origin story, delivering jaw-dropping twists, epic fights, and proving that over-the-top nonsense is sometimes all you need.
The King's Man arrives in theaters on December 22, 2021.