The King’s Man (2021)

World war dumb

Who, exactly, was clamoring to see Matthew Vaughn’s World War 1 movie? Who saw the first two Kingsman movies and thought their cinematic world was so rich and deep that it needed an origin story? Is Matthew Vaughn’s sway in Hollywood so much that he can command a budget for any project he wants, or did some studio actually read his treatment and make a reasoned decision to throw a nine figure production budget at it?

Kingsman 2 showed what an unfiltered Vaughn looked like — noisier, weirder, flashier, less polished than ever. But it didn’t — it couldn’t have — prepared us for this. The King’s Man unshackles his weird impulses even more, but filters them through historical fiction of a somewhat austere tone, giving the entire film an absolutely bananas identity crisis. It is Vaughn’s worst film to date, though the sheer quantity of all-in moments and bizarre swings mean that inevitably something will land among the mashed potatoes staining your wall.

There are almost no words for how much of a roller coaster The King’s Man is. It’s nonstop herky-jerk ups and downs and swerves: in tone, quality, coherency, good taste, etc. Unfortunately, it’s much more lows than high. The worst sin is the runtime, the thorn in the side of Vaughn’s movies since at least X-Men: First Class. It’s an agonizing two hours and eleven minutes, broken into about five acts.

Better an epic misfire than a boring slog, I suppose, and the film is not without merits. There is some genuinely good stuff in here. The title performance by Ralph Fiennes is actually brilliant, tying together all of the weird directions the story goes. The movie doesn’t deserve so much. When Vaughn inevitably abruptly kills a main character (a Kingsman series staple), Fiennes actually sells the pathos. I was sad. Fiennes is also suitably badass, though it’s mostly other actors who get the big action set pieces until the climax.

There are two really remarkable set pieces, and they couldn’t be more different. The first comes towards the end of the first act, and it’s one of the goofiest fight scenes I’ve seen since the dildo fight in Everything Everywhere All At Once. This one is nearly that cuckoo and fun, too. Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) engages in ballet fighting with a band of protagonists, and it’s just wacky kinetic bliss.

Another of the film’s high points: A raid on a mountain farmhouse in the final half hour offers the best nuts-and-bolts spy action sequence in the Kingsman series to date. Unlike the big, silly capstone set pieces of the previous movies, this is something that could actually be in a spy movie of the type that the series is a reaction to.

Then there’s a catastrophically bad pivot to Vaughn’s take on All Quiet on the Western Front, a tonally misshapen depiction of the doomed valor of World War I, complete with a tear-jerking death to underscore the nihilism of war. So you’re going to go from a Rasputin dance-battle to this? Okay, Matthew Vaughn.

Yet the single most outrageous element of the film is the colossally idiotic fictional historical conspiracy that Vaughn weaves. It would be so easy to dismiss as parody, and it is certainly taking the piss at least a little bit, but the way Vaughn leans into it is so unhinged: All of the world’s European early-century historical icons of villainy are in a secret organization called The Flock, conspiring and conniving to achieve the ultimate goal of… Scottish independence? The fuck? I’m not joking, that’s the driving mission of head honcho, The Shepherd (who I will not credit since their identity is a bit of a mystery).

If I had to guess, Vaughn is playing this just straight enough for American idiots like me not to pick up on his English sense of humor. (And, indeed, there is an elaborate anti-American animus to the film — we learn here that the reason America held off on entering the war was because of a Woodrow Wilson sex scandal cover-up.) But I kept waiting for it to feel more like a lark and less like the fetishization of spy conspiracy malarkey grafted onto a Wikipedia article about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

And all of that builds to a mid-credits sequence so baroquely misguided it becomes a 30 Rock joke. It’s essentially an MCU reveal of a celebrity-cast villain, except the dramatic reveal is that the villain is… Adolf Hitler. Dun dun dun! Wild stuff. Are you telling me World War 1 might have a sequel?

As with Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The King’s Man inspires enough perverse curiosity to remain fascinating from time to time, and occasionally even good, but more often than not it’s just dragged out hokum. Too little spread across to much runtime, and what’s there is brain-meltingly dumb.

Is It Good?

Not Very Good (3/8)

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3 replies on “The King’s Man (2021)”

My great disappointment with this film is that the villain’s motivation was something as inherently Republican as Scottish Nationalism – given the critical role of Dynastic follies au grandeur in generating the First World War, having a Mad Jacobite ultimately to blame for setting light to the kindling would have been far more coherent with the rest of the film.

On the other hand this film has the lovely Gemma Arterton using a Yorkshire accent; Mr Ralph Fiennes enjoying his rare opportunity to play a fine, upstanding gallant; President Woodrow Wilson getting parodied; Mr Tom Hollander’s unusual but thematically-brilliant triple; Mr Rhys Ifans giving us a Rasputin completely worthy of Boney M (One also finds his eventual demise a wonderful Action Movie translation of his historic fate; the Gentleman Amateurs make a mess of things, then an actual professional gets the job done); also, did I mention having a weakness for Yorkshire accents AND the lovely Gemma Arterton?

How could I hate a film like that?

I didn’t mention Arterton but she is definitely quite charming in this

I’d argue that mentioning Ms. Arterton appears in a film makes adding “… and was very charming” quite redundant. (-;

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