For a film series primarily known for its spunk, it’s a bit shocking to see Matthew Vaughn take his third foray into the Kingsman universe and ring it dry of its bite.
What often felt like a direct lampoon of the Daniel Craig James Bond films and a hyperreactive 2010s sociopolitical satire, Vaughn’s Kingsman films, for all their faults, felt like they were getting away with something. His style was so distinctly affective, almost as if he was trying to get a rise out of the audience. That churlish irreverence wasn’t for everyone, but it at least felt like something fresh. While 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle was a bit of a letdown, it still felt akin to its predecessor. The King’s Man, Vaughn’s stab at trying to tell the apparently laborious backstory to how his secret British agency came to be, is an enjoyable enough wartime spy flick, but it’s mostly zapped of its smirk.
Competency shouldn’t be the goal in what seemed like one of our more interesting IP brouhahas, but it’s what Vaughn and company chase for with their journey into Kingsman’s past. It’s a very middling effort; the film is entirely watchable, occasionally intriguing, but always at a lower frequency of bombast than its predecessors. No matter how well Ralph Fiennes slides into a role that seemed tailor-made for him, he can’t quite lift this film past general accessibility. It’s not likely to bore you, but it’s certainly a tamer beast than what came before.
The film flips back to the first World War, where the Kingsman operation is merely a secret side hustle for the Duke of Oxford (Fiennes) along with compatriots Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Dijon Hounsou). Co-writers Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek string together an alternate history, where some of the world’s most nefarious actors at the time are apparently puppet mastered by a Scottish shadow organization ran by a faceless snarl. The film hops and jumps around events from the war, momentarily enlisting Rhys Ifans’ hulking take on Grigori Rasputin during one of the film’s early highlights. Ifans seems to be the only person who watched the original films, as he reaches for more of that unsavory tone that kept the first two films on its feet. He’s not in the film nearly enough, with his character sorely underutilized. He’s a grotesque, creepy villain, certainly, but for a film that can be as stale as month-old vanilla wafers, you could’ve at least kept the zest.
Vaughn’s film is surprisingly respectful to the past, only retaining the series’ violence and completely abstaining from its moxy. It’s not 1917, but the film clearly wants to have a serious conversation about the rigors of pacifism and protection, of deciding when to fight and when to stay out of harm’s way. It’s admittedly a strange movie series to be having that dialogue, one where violence really wasn’t much of a concern when Colin Firth was infamously capping crazed Southern zealots en masse to the tune of falling bullet shells and Lynyrd Skynyrd. If Vaughn is trying to somewhat rectify his violent past (2010’s Kick-Ass did plenty to inspire discourse on its violence-via-kid-assassin), it doesn’t entirely feel like a successful discussion. If it’s just character development, it feels removed from the series’ laissez faire approach in the past that added to those movies being guilty pleasures. It’s just that this time, there’s a more serious splatter of decapitated heads and slit throats.
If that seems overly critical, it’s not as if Vaughn isn’t a competent enough filmmaker to at least get some things right. The King’s Man is not a bad movie as much as it is an odd evolution for a series that seemed hellbent on sticking to its shock value. The scenes with Ifans, including an inspired ballet battle between a fleet-footed Rasputin and a gaggle of Kingsmen, carry the same intrigue of the original films and a dash of the squirm. The series seems primed to revisit these characters for a World War II reunion sometime down the line if the money is there, but one wonders if we really need more of this.
The first film was a delightfully nasty surprise, its sequel a bit of a retread. The King’s Man feels like it’s having an identity crisis, unsure whether or not to grow up or stick to its gleefully bloody ways. By film’s end, the serious gaze appears to fade a bit in lieu for good old fashioned skullduggery, but you can’t deny that when it works, it makes you wonder if this series could’ve always used a bit more nobility. Even still, aside from the spirited first film, you’re left with another Kingsman venture that feels more perfunctory than progressive. It’s a decent enough watch, but there’s really not much left for this series to do if its straddling such an odd compromise between past and present.