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.