Djimon Hounsou

The King’s Man


Cineworld, Edinburgh

I enjoyed Matthew Vaughn’s two Kingsman movies. A refreshing take on the spy genre, written with a nod and a cheeky grin, they provided easy, if undemanding, entertainment. After long delays caused by the pandemic, we finally get to see The King’s Man, a sort of origins tale, which explains how the Kingsman Agency came into being.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, this is a very different kettle of fish – some of which is well past its sell-by date. It isn’t that Vaughn’s screenplay (written this time without Jane Goldman) is short on ideas. There are just too many of them, fighting with each other for breathing space and frankly as risible as the proverbial box of frogs.

After the violent death of his wife in South Africa, Lord Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a rich pacifist do-gooder swears to shield his young son from any possibility of warfare. Twelve years later, Conrad (Harris Dickinson) has grown to be a young man and, with the world hurtling headlong towards the conflict of the First World War, he decides he wants to be involved. He’s blissfully unaware that, over the intervening years, his father has created a special network of spies, working alongside two of his trusted servants, Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou). Working with other ‘domestics’ across the world, all with access to centres of government, the trio are able to gather evidence of any approaching catastrophe and take steps to avoid unnecessary lives being lost… yes, that really is the premise!

Cue a series of unlikely adventures, with Oxford and son working alongside Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance), being present at the assassination of Duke Franz Ferdinand and even taking on Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) in a martial-arts infused punch-up (actually one of the films better sequences). Meanwhile Tom Hollander struggles with a triple role as three of history’s most famous cousins – King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas – and ultimately, we learn that the entire war has been engineered by… No, I can’t tell you. Not without being embarrassed by the sheer absurdity of it. Put it this way. I seriously doubt you’ll see it coming.

While it’s true there are a couple of excellent action set-pieces in the later stretches of the film, there’s a long grim wait before we get to them, during which we are treated to a parade of caricatures that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Carry On film. There are also some conspiracy theories that frankly beggar belief. The final straw is the use of Dulce et Decorum est to pass comment on the senseless slaughter of the First World War. While Fiennes reads it beautifully, it’s hard not to imagine Wilfred Owen spinning in his grave as Vaughan makes a desperate attempt to have his Bakewell Tart and eat it.

The overall message here seems to be that humanity always depends on rich toffs to step in and bail them out of trouble when, once again, the rest of us make a mess of things. Fiennes, a superb actor, is worthy of better material than he’s given here and I’m not referring to the tailoring.

It’s a great shame, because clearly a lot of time, effort and money has been expended on this production. Released on Boxing Day in an apparent attempt to hoover up the Christmas market, I seriously doubt this will recoup what must have been a considerable investment.

Even during the festive season, there’s only so much cheese an audience can swallow.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney



It’s generally accepted that, as comic book universes go, Marvel is the outfit that employs a lighter touch, whereas DC habitually plays things dark and po-faced. So Shazam! is clearly an attempt to give the latter franchise a kick up the spandex-clad backside, playing things primarily for laughs and making a pretty good job of it. Unfortunately, the tone of the film tends to veer alarmingly back to the dark side every now and then and, whenever it does, the momentum is temporarily lost and has to be recaptured.

Shazam! began life back in 1939 as a comic, where the central superhero was known (rather confusingly, given recent film history) as Captain Marvel, but the origins story remains pretty much intact. This is the tale of young orphan, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who loses his young mother in a crowd one day and, years later, is still desperately trying to find her. For no good reason, an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounso) gifts him with the ability to transform himself into the titular superhero, Shazam (Zachary Levi). But before we see that origins story, we are obliged to sit through another one, a scene from the childhood of Thaddeus Sivana, who will one day grow up to be played by Mark Strong and who will be a very bad egg indeed.

To be honest, the opening twenty minutes of the film are a bit of a trial – indeed, I am actually considering walking out of the screening until Billy’s first transformation occurs and the film takes a huge step in the right direction. The central conceit – what would a superhero be like if he was actually a fourteen year old boy? – is a bit of a masterstroke and Shazam’s early attempts to come to grips with his newfound abilities, aided by his nerdy friend, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), are laugh-out-loud funny. Likewise, Billy’s interplay with the foster parents who take him on is nicely done with some lovely dialogue between him and the other kids in the group home.

But of course, it’s only a matter of time before a grown-up Dr Thaddeus Sivana shows his face and matters lurch straight back to the dark side. Sivana has managed to find a way to channel the seven deadly sins, giving himself superpowers of an altogether more sinister kind than Billy’s. A scene where Sivana flings his older brother through the window of a skyscraper and then orders his brutish parasites to chow down on a boardroom full of businesspeople (one of whom is his father) does not sit particularly well with the humorous stuff I’ve just been enjoying so much.

The film continues to seesaw its way along in this disconcerting fashion and I find myself constantly having to reassess my position on it. For the most part, it’s enjoyable stuff and even the distressingly long, CGI-assisted final confrontation is, I suppose, par for the course in a superhero movie. There’s a brief coda that provides a brilliant last laugh and a post credits sequence that suggests the possibility of a sequel. I’m not sure this idea has the legs to go very much further, but Shazam! is, for the most part, entertaining and, unlike so many comic book movies of recent years, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Which, when I think about it, may be the best recommendation of all.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney