A film that pinky promised to be the return to form for the Kingsmen series ended up resembling it’s WW1 setting just a little too well: messy, painful and more than a little pointless.
We live in interesting times, and The King’s Man feels like it has been promoted since the beginning of them. Shot in 2019 and on the cusp of release for well over a year, promotional material of one kind or another permeated through the usual channels. It fulfilled the duty of creating anticipation in some corners, including my own, and when I finally entered the theatre in December 2021 I hoped for the best.
Well that taught me a lesson.
Promotional material for The King’s Man was telling for a reason or two, the sheer quantity of it indicating the first. For a relatively niche series from a small production company the quantity of promotion was a red flag – this was a film hoping to get people in early and beat the critics. Good thing too, because once you’re out of the trenches it doesn’t take long before the massacre begins.
There is no better way to put it: The King’s Man is a jumbled mess. The second lie of the film’s marketing was the type of film we were getting, and no wonder. Going back and reviewing the early material the perception was that of a more earnest, gritty war film that would evolve into the origin of the titular Kingsmen. The later trailers however painted a sillier action comedy based on louder than life characters and ridiculous set pieces.
In fact these were both misdirections; there are three films in one. The first a Roger Moore’s Bond style romp clumsily depicting the founding of the Kingsmen. The second a heartfelt drama about a man who loses everything to war. The last a political satire doing its level best karaoke impression of the brilliant Death of Stalin. Alone each of these three ideas are good, and indeed the sections of these films on their own two feet may stand scrutiny – but the splicing of the three are a severe detriment to each other. The done to death excessive swearing alone ruins any chance that the sadder scenes of the film bear any emotional impact.
It’s difficult to know whether this was the result of an ambitious Director biting off more than he could chew, or perhaps a meddling studio fearing wartime drama doesn’t put bums on seats. Either way the jarring switches in the overall tone were enough to find the film hard to follow.
It’s not impossible for a film to recover from an unevenness in tone though – for The Kings Man however it only goes downhill from here.
Ra-Ra-Rasputin, Never saw that Guy again
The aforementioned aside; the first act was actually quite good. Largely perfunctory in introducing the cast and setting the stage; The casting is decent, the performances adequate and a good job is done in establishing the WW1 background fairly sharpish.
It doesn’t hurt that the film’s best element by far stars in Act 1: Rhys Ifans as Grigori Rasputin. It was a transformation that I had to google to believe but Ifans did a spectacular job in bringing the legend of the mad monk to life, seamlessly transitioning between sinister mystic to depraved nobleman. The plot to this point had been sensical (if not a little slow) and the ensuing battle was Kingsman-esque in its hectic blend of silliness and high paced action. Now we’re talking…
Only, in most films the Act 1 battle ends with the sneering villain narrowly escaping, setting up a second Act where the protagonists must find a way to stop him once and for all. In the Kings Man however, Rasputin is shot in the head. Perhaps 50 minutes into a 2h 10m film.
The third lie of the marketing material had been that Rasputin was clearly set up as the main antagonist. Now he was quite definitely dead (full marks for historical accuracy, he was poisoned, stabbed, drowned and shot). Though earlier we did see a council of villains we had seen nearly nothing of them in the first hour, only a nameless henchman doing nameless henchman things and a nameless “Shepherd” being sinister.
It was my presumption this was setting up sequels where we would be introduced to villains around the table in each instalment. As it was, the first act of the movie developed only Rasputin – the rest would never really receive any depth, even the Shepherd. The executives clearly knew that Rasputin was the best part of the movie and marketed it heavily on that fact, so it begs the question as to why the film wasn’t reshaped to use him more.
What is going on?
Rasputin’s death was the high point of the film, and it never really recovered. The proceeding hour took a hard left into a completely different movie, where the Duke’s son enlists to do his bit for queen and country. The Director tries to show young Conrad as a misled hero, and maybe just maybe he would make it back alive, all signs were pointing that way. Alas.
His death was in earnest, annoying. Yes its a commentary on war, yes its a subversion of our expectations, but for what? Thus far we had seen a silly spy flick that, on the same trajectory would make a passable film. As it is I’m now watching an imitation of 1917, going a large chunk of the film away from the rest of the main cast or seeing much of the other villains. All this for a character who just dies. Oh how war is pointless… but did you need a third of this 2021 action-comedy to make that observation? There is a time and a place and this wasn’t it.
The Director wants you to see Conrad’s death as the Duke’s motivation to take the fight to “the villains” whoever they are, but no amount of dramatic crying and serious stares into middle distance convince. The Duke was clearly already fighting this fight, and the pacifism element which was now paraded as a central theme had barely gone mentioned for the first 2 Acts.
The final act was at least back to being an action comedy, but it was quite forgettable or nonsensical, take your pick. One or two decent action set pieces, some comedy that didn’t quite hit the mark and a villain reveal that forced me to exclaim some rude words in the cinema. Matthew Goode’s Morton was seemingly killed off in Act 1, nearly 1.5 hours before the reveal that he was behind the grand machinations all along. And it’s an absolutely infuriating piece of nonsense.
As soon as a mole is mentioned 20 minutes into the film I would have bet my house on him. A shifty lieutenant to the British commander, and the only named governmental character introduced that wasn’t the commander himself or the bloody King of England. But he “dies” only for the film to retcon his escape from an exploding ship and show him boarding a surfaced submarine… it was all too much. Some sword fighting, some more nonsense about pacifism (the Duke’s bodycount was perhaps 20 by this time) and to be honest even the film felt like it was going through the paces.
A failed reboot
Kingsmen was a sleeper hit in part due to its interesting, off-beat style and fantastic, frantic action. It was helped as well by an understated release which soon spread through word of mouth and positive critical acclaim.
Matthew Vaughan has tried to replicate this formula now with both sequel and prequel, but both show signs of similar failings. When a film is popular the trend is always to aim for 110%, but the Kingsmen style just doesn’t lend itself to trying too hard. The Kings Man sought to breath some life into an intellectual property full of promise, but in the end we got a film that sought to execute too many ideas without nailing any of them.
Bonus: Silly Things
This film really was quite stupid. I have watched stupid films before, but I can’t remember the last one with quite so many individually stupid moments, so I’ve decided to list some of them as a kind of catharsis:
- At the start of the film, why is the British base in a ravine, with no fortifications? One sniper nearly takes out the entire base
- Why is Penny good at everything? She is the spy network creating, hacking, sharpshooter, whereas Shola is just “knife guy”
- In Kingsmen a big deal was made about the organisation being exclusively for the noble class – and yet half of the organisation was founded from servants
- Not to mention Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Archie Reed, who shows up to do approximately sod all and then becomes a Kingsman? Clearly there was an intention to involve him in sequels but that’s probably not going to happen now
- Oh and the King. Yes King George becomes a King’s Man. a) how does that work? b) how can it be a civilian agency if it has the bloody King in it.
- Conrad’s poor decision making beggars belief. Imagine turning up at a battlefield and having to kill people. Yes kids didn’t know how bad the battlefield was in WW1 – but Conrad was an educated member of the upper classes not some poor illiterate factory worker who thought the posters looked good and wanted a uniform
- Morton. Everything to do with him. From his stupid fake English accent, the actors stupid over the top Scottish accent, his magic submarine boarding, his teleporting to mountain lairs and why the hell is everyone afraid of him anyway? Because he has a sword and some goats? And why is he doing all this? Because the English took his parents mill? Maddeningly stupid.
- The weird Polly/Duke kissing scene. It was weird, out of place and weird.
- The sheer number of self gratifying music swells as character smiles knowingly moments this film has. As if it wants me to do a backflip when Shola walks in to: “and this is our quarter-master, Merlin.” *wretch*
- The end credit scene. The brilliant The Weekly Planet podcast features a “the game is on” award for the movie that most obviously tried to set up a sequel. And boy this scene was cringeworthy.
If you can think of any more I would love to see them below in the comments!