A prequel to spy-action-comedy set during World War I might seem like something of an ill-advised idea, but it’s one that The King’s Man embraced nonetheless. After a strong start to the franchise with Kingsman: The Secret Service, a weaker follow-up put future installments in jeopardy, which is perhaps the reason for the story to be stripped back to its roots in order to follow the foundation of the titular agency.
After spending a reasonable while in production, and then facing significant delays due to the pandemic, The King’s Man finally released at the tail end of 2021 before landing on Disney+. Starring Ralph Fiennes as the Duke of Oxford, The King’s Man follows a pacifistic aristocrat as he becomes entangled in the machinations of war and forms the Kingsman agency as a result. Fiennes is joined by a large cast including Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Daniel Brühl and Harris Dickinson, and the film also contains a number of cameos from actors playing notable historic figures.
In concept, The King’s Man is excellent. Its World War I setting is familiar yet still fresh, and the idea of showing how and why the spy organization was formed seemed an exciting prospect. With a solid cast of talented actors, it almost lives up to that potential. Almost, but not quite.
The warping of history in order to serve a plot that contains as many historic events as possible was transparent, and ultimately resulted in a narrative that felt far less organic than it should have. With Fiennes and Dickinson sharing good chemistry as on-screen father and son, the film’s shortcomings in its plot can be ignored, but they remain present throughout, nagging at every scene. Put simply, The King’s Man‘s plot just isn’t overly engaging, even during its more exciting sequences.
By the time the film’s second-act twist comes around, The King’s Man has grown tiresome, and there’s still been no real indication that the agency will even be formed. Around the same time, two huge stars are briefly featured (Stanley Tucci and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), only to disappear quickly. The film’s plot is then resolved through a series of well-executed but somewhat joyless action scenes, and the Kingsman agency is formed. The King’s Man then reveals that Tucci and Taylor-Johnson were included specifically to set up a sequel, something which the film doubles down on with a post-credit scene featuring none other than Adolf Hitler.
This sequel tease hardly feels earned, and it leaves The King’s Man feeling cheap. It feels like half a film – a dragged out first act with a few worthwhile scenes thrown in. There’s some fun action that feels more comedic than nerve-wracking, particularly where Rhys Ifans’ Rasputin is involved, and generally the film packs a few laughs. However, it lacks the charm that made the original Kingsman film work so well, and although it captures the same spirit, it feels deliberately held back in order to milk as much from the franchise as possible.
Overall, it’s a watchable film, and it’s even at times enjoyable. However, its lazy writing shines through and the film feels far less exciting than the sequel it teases, which leaves something of a sour taste as the credits roll.
Summary: A film conceived to set up a franchise more than to genuinely entertain, The King’s Man is only really worth watching if it manages to succeed in securing a sequel (which has a far better chance of feeling worthwhile).
Highlights: Rhys Ifans’ performance as Rasputin is both funny and creepy, with a solidly entertaining action scene that is easily the highlight of the film for its strangeness alone.