As World War I rages across Europe, the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) race against time to stop a plot that would see England destroyed by the German Empire. With the help of an intelligence network formed by servants in his employ (Gemma Arterton, Djimon Honsou), the Duke of Oxford battles Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner) and Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Bruhl)...
Matthew Vaughn's spin on Mark Millar's 'Kingsman' comic series has thus far resulted in one relatively fine action-comedy, one incoherent action-comedy, and now, one flat-out failure of an action... tragi-comedy? In recent years, World War I has become a focal point for English directors with the likes of '1917', 'Tolkien', and 'Testament of Youth' going some length to describe the utter horrors of it, but rarely grasping the meaningless nature of it. 'The King's Man' does the same, but again, fumbles an opportunity to do something meaningful with it.
Instead, 'The King's Man' falls under the weight of its own franchisement by trying to squeeze in pointless references to itself with ham-fisted dialogue and clunky plotting. They even explain where that little shotgun-under-barrel thing comes from in their pistols, as if the audiences were clamouring for an explanation for that. Much of the cast assembled also seem to ignore the fact that they're in a cheeky action-comedy. Ralph Fiennes, for example, gives the role too much intensity and never once leans into the humourous nature of it. Harris Dickinson, likewise, is far too austere while Rhys Ifans and Tom Hollander seem to be having the most fun with their roles. Ifans, for example, takes his accent and general performance from Gary Oldman in 'Dracula'. Hollander takes up a triple role as Kings Wilhelm II and George V and Tsar Nicholas II, but plays Wilhelm II in particular like he's a character in 'Allo Allo'.
Beyond this, the plot veers between insulting, hideously ridiculous, brain-numbingly convoluted, and just plain stupid. The central villain, for example, is revealed to be a Scotsman angered at England's colonialism and yearns for its destruction as a result and equally detests the idea of nobility and entitlement. On top of this, you've got a woman and a black man acting as servants to the rich aristocrat who's trying to save the day. It's so pointed about all of this that you have to wonder is it trying to bait audiences, or do Vaughn and his co-writer Karl Gajdusek really think this is going to go over with them?
What's frustrating about 'The King's Man' is that in between all this mess, there are some very well-directed action sequences struggling to get a fair hearing. There's an excellent fight scene that takes place between the trenches, not to mention a particularly ridiculous one involving a swordfight with Ralph Fiennes and Rhys Ifans that's preceded by some really weird sexual vibes. The final dustup between Fiennes and the movie's big bad is satisfyingly violent, but again, it's all couched between a poorly written story that's basically insulting anyone who doesn't have a noble title in their name.
With Fox subsumed by Disney, it seems unlikely that there'll be a sequel here even if Matthew Vaughn plants the flag hard in the dying moments here. For one, most reviews out there are like this one. But beyond that, 'Kingsman' and this prequel simply can't compete with other franchises of its kind, who are able to be fun, whimsical, satirical, and enjoyable without the weird and frankly annoying attitude of this one. To borrow from the Indian philosopher Chanakya, it is better to be without a 'Kingsman' than to have a bad one.