The King’s Man review: Has the Kingsman prequel been worth the wait?
Of all the major movies delayed by the pandemic, it feels like The King’s Man has gone under the radar despite being no less affected than No Time to Die.
Like Daniel Craig’s final James Bond movie, the Kingsman prequel was originally set for release in November 2019. A series of moves followed from February 2020 to September 2020 and then from February 2021 to August 2021, before it finally settled on its December 2021 release date.
Its eventual arrival comes at a daunting time though, sandwiched between Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Matrix Resurrections in the US. The King’s Man arrives after both of those movies in the UK on Boxing Day, but there’s still the worry that it could get lost against such serious competition.
And it would be a shame if that proves to be the case. After the dreadful Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Matthew Vaughn has delivered a good old-fashioned British blockbuster that, while not flawless, delivers spy thrills and big surprises.
Back in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) told Eggsy (Taron Egerton) how the Kingsman group was formed after World War I. A group of the British elite who lost people in the global conflict formed the private intelligence service, aiming to protect the world.
The King’s Man tells this story through the eyes of Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) who left active service to join the Red Cross. Following the death of his wife during the Boer War, he committed himself to protecting his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from the world and even the hint of war.
However, in 1914, Oxford finds himself reluctantly drawn back into conflict as a group of tyrants, including Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), gather to plot a war that will wipe out millions.
With a mysterious leader known only as the Shepherd, the nefarious group set cousins King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas (all Tom Hollander) against each other to spark a global battle. As Oxford faces a race against time, can he stop the villains in time to prevent a worldwide catastrophe?
The strength of The King’s Man is in the way that Vaughn – who co-wrote the movie with Karl Gajdusek – weaves real-life history into the narrative. In this reworked version of history, the first Kingsman operatives were present at events such as Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.
If you’re not familiar with the origins of World War I, there are aspects that seem so outlandish that it must be an invention for the movie. However, Vaughn is careful to remain true to history and only adds Kingsman flourishes in the subplot of this evil cabal of villains plotting to destroy the world. The approach adds a unique and smarter element to the movie than you’d necessarily have expected.
At times, it does feel though like Vaughn wanted to make a war movie and fitted the Kingsman element into it, rather than the other way around. It means that you’ll end up learning more about World War I than you really do about the beginnings of the Kingsman organisation, which isn’t really the point of an origin story.
There’s also a restraint to large parts of The King’s Man, potentially because of the connection to a dark period of history. Where previously the series has treated violence as a bit of a jape, the prequel is more sombre in tone and there’s a level of emotion the other movies lacked.
It’s not necessarily what you’d expect from a series that has previously featured Elton John battling robotic dogs, but it’s a welcome change. Even if the story does often meander to fit real-life history into the Kingsman series, you can’t accuse Vaughn of just doing the same thing he did in the first two.
There are still the trademark Kingsman touches to be found elsewhere, such as the hyper-kinetic camerawork during the fight scenes. Since it’s not overused, it makes more impact when it is, such as during a wild Russia-set sequence as Oxford, Conrad and Shola (Djimon Hounsou) take on Rasputin.
For those who thought the other Kingsman movies were excessive, there’s relatively little of the hyperviolence here. It comes to the fore in the climax, including a ridiculous decapitation, but like the story, Vaughn is more restrained and it’s welcome. It adds to the feeling of the prequel being a classy old-school spy blockbuster, rather than an in-your-face action-comedy.
The class shines through in the stacked cast who make the most of one-note characters, with Ralph Fiennes and Gemma Arterton the stand-outs. Harris Dickinson struggles the most with his thin character, who mostly just wants to join the fight and gets stroppy when his father won’t let him.
Fortunately, Fiennes’ Oxford is very much the central character here and has the most development, carrying the movie’s emotional weight. Even he’s outshone by Rhys Ifans in an outlandish and entertaining turn as Rasputin, while Tom Hollander is excellent as the three cousins at the centre of the conflict.
The King’s Man might not entirely be what Kingsman fans expect, but Vaughn still sprinkles enough of it throughout to keep those fans entertained. The prequel doesn’t really shine that much light on the secret spy organisation, but it’s still a satisfying blockbuster watch for this Christmas.