The 'Kingsman' franchise must be one of the oddest of the current franchises. The first film, 'Kingsman: The Secret Service' (2014) had a tremendous amount of charm and was a star-making turn from Taron Egerton, but its reprehensible sequel 'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' (2017) took all the wrong lessons from the success of its predecessor. Rather than building on the action or the style, it instead doubled down on the smatterings of crude teenage boy humour that were the only real problems with the first film. In 'The Secret Service', this problem could almost be overlooked for how much fun the film was, but in 'The Golden Circle', it became such a feature that, despite the more impressive cast, the sexist, disgusting humour rendered the film unwatchable.
This should have killed the franchise dead - and yet here we are, talking about another Kingsman film, albeit a prequel. Such a move for a franchise always suggests that a realignment is in the works (with a fourth film still on the schedule), and thankfully this latest instalment, 'The King's Man', learns from the mistakes of 'The Golden Circle', bringing back many of the more charming elements of the first film while finding a flavour of its own.
The film charts the origins of the gentleman spy agency and its founder - Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'). After his wife is killed on a diplomatic mission during the Boer War, Oxford pledges a life of pacifism, in part to protect his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson, 'Beach Rats'). When political violence in Europe begins to pave the way towards war, Oxford works with his servants Shola (Djimon Hounsou, 'Gladiator') and Polly (Gemma Ardeton, 'Quantum of Solace') to avert crisis through covert means, but as the situation escalates and a mysterious web of influence begins to appear, Oxford's convictions are put to the test, forcing him into extreme actions.
SWITCH: 'THE KING'S MAN' TRAILER 3
Matthew Vaughn is once again in the directing chair, and for the most part, this latest 'Kingsman' instalment works significantly better. Both the period setting and the historical context give the film a focus and (mostly) prevent that pesky juvenile humour from creeping in. There seems to be a cognisant fear of repeating past mistakes with 'The King's Man', and while it might rob the film of its freshness, it certainly makes it easier to emotionally empathise with the characters. There's a moral conundrum at the heart of the film, where the validity of warfare as a means of solving political squabbles is questioned. It's to Vaughn and co-writer Karl Gajdusek's credit that they aren't flippant with the context of the First World War. Its origins are only fictionalised to a point, and when the conflict begins within the narrative itself, it is treated with appropriate respect. This makes 'The King's Man' a more serious entry than its predecessors, with a genuine sense of emotional and moral cost to its characters, and while this affects the rhythm in the second act, it ultimately makes for a more satisfying film.
It's also a clever move to make Oxford (who will become the founder of the Kingsman) a pacifist, because all violent actions undertaken by him and his team are subjected to appropriate scrutiny. There's a risk that, as Oxford accepts the need to engage in violent tactics that we'd be watching a man lose his morals over the course of the film, but the narrative is careful to make sure its protagonist never loses his integrity. It helps that Oxford rather than Conrad is very much the protagonist, lending the film a more mature, settled energy as opposed to the other instalments. This doesn't mean that Vaughn skimps on the bombast - there are still ridiculous action set-pieces, flashes of crude humour and healthy dollops of excess - but the fun comes from seeing this action play out with esteemed actors rather than the latest action poster boy.
There seems to be a cognisant fear of repeating past mistakes with 'The King's Man', and while it might rob the film of its freshness, it certainly makes it easier to emotionally empathise with the characters.
Perhaps the most wonderful surprise of 'The King's Man' is seeing Ralph Fiennes as an action star. He's a real delight as Oxford, clearly having a ball having a chance to play in this ridiculous sandbox. He's also able to lend emotional depth despite the obviousness of some of the dialogue. Rhys Ifans and Tom Hollander are also having a great time, the former as a sexed-up and deliciously dishevelled Grigori Rasputin, and the latter as all of the crowned heads of Europe. Harris Dickinson doesn't have the same immediate charm as Aaron Egerton, but luckily the film doesn't ask this of him, and he has good chemistry with Fiennes. Gemma Arteton has a little more to do here than usual, but you still sit there wondering why such a talented and charismatic actor has never found a way to hit with audiences the way she deserves. The biggest issue if Dijon Hounsou. He's actually very good in the film, but this film sees the Oscar-nominated actor once again playing a sagely servant character, barely a stone's throw away from the terrible trope of the mystical person of colour. Surely we are past this by now, and can offer the talented actor some roles of substance worthy of his skill.
The major issue with 'The King's Man' is that it never feels like the cake is fully baked. It's a little too long, a little too unfocused, a little too flabby. It's a pity, because there's actually a lot here to like. The performances are strong, the action is zippy and the historical context is handled with far more attention and integrity than you would ever have expected from this franchise. At the very least, it's significantly better than 'The Golden Circle', and the final scenes have a palpable emotional weight to them. In many ways, 'The King's Man' makes the previous two films feel even more flippant, and I was left hoping that the next film might explore the disconnect between the sombre principles on which the agency was founded and the distasteful excess it now employs... or maybe this is just a flash in the pan and we'll be back to the sexism and the gross-out set-pieces again in the next film. Regardless, 'The King's Man' is a much more satisfying and entertaining film than I had expected, and I walked away having had a damn good time, the history buff in me as tickled as the one who loves watching great action sequences, things blowing up and attractive people in tailored clothing. If you approach the film with those expectations, you might end up having a good time too.