The writers and film lovers here at Full Circle Cinema know that opinions on films are divisive and can get pretty argumentative. But to encourage friendly and lively debate, we have Full Circle Showdown. This series involves an in-depth discussion and collaborative review from two writers who have different opinions and ways of seeing films. The topic this time around is The King’s Man, the newest film in the ongoing Kingsman series from director Matthew Vaughn.
Review #1: Jacob Mauceri (Critic)
I distinctly remember in 2019 the amount of excitement I had for The King’s Man. Growing up I was always surrounded by the James Bond properties since my dad was a huge Bond fan (even owning most of Ian Fleming’s original publications of the James Bond novels). I watched the original Kingsman movie and had a blast with it. I even enjoyed the sequel, which I considered less in quality than the first but still had a good time. Both movies upended the preconceived idea of espionage movies upon themselves. All of this to say I was pretty excited for this movie. Even after each delay, a maintained level of excitement pegged my expectations higher and higher as time passed. Having now seen it I may have gauged my expectations too high. And even that’s being generous.
The King’s Man is the prequel-origin story of the Kingsman secret service. Following the formation of the organization in the midst of the first World War. Full of history’s favorite villains and fascists, The King’s Man seeks to make fiction of history in the same way Inglourious Basterds did it. Although this movie follows the first World War, you would hope a Kingsman movie would have life to it.
Somehow, any semblance of energy or eccentricities (which made the Kingsman movies so lovable for me) was reduced to only Rasputin (Rhys Ifans). While the scenes with Rasputin are easily the strongest parts of that movie, his character is only relevant for a short time at the beginning of the movie, leaving the rest of the movie to be a dry slog of a watch. Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton were also interesting, but they had barely anything to work with.
When the movie starts, it shows a flashback to a tragic moment which is undercut by the title card with triumphant music. This is only a singular example of tonal whiplash, which continues as the movie progresses. Furthermore, the decision-making skills of these characters are abysmal. Seeing as how this movie is based on the first World War, it recreated the event that catalyzed the war (assassination of Archduke Ferdinand).
After a botched assassination attempt, the Archduke still went on his way leaving him wide open. This decision (and other decisions I won’t get into here to avoid spoilers) felt more to further the plot rather than feeling like a genuine decision. In a way, coming off as disrespectful to the viewer as to suspend rationality just so they can bumper car this movie along.
While I did say Rasputin was the strongest part of the movie, the weakest part of this movie is Conrad. Conrad (Harris Dickinson) is the son of the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes). He feels the need to serve in the war, despite the better wishes of his wiser combat veteran father. I could tell that Dickinson is a great actor, but the material he had to work with was dull and sterile. Once Conrad eventually enters the war, it felt no sense of pace and came off as a completely different movie.
Although this movie was set to release alongside Sam Mendes’ 1917, the war sequences in The King’s Man are identical to 1917‘s but without the tension needed to grapple the viewer. Sadly, as the movie progressed past the war, it never found its pace again. Leaving a two-hour movie to feel like an eternity.
It is depressing to see this movie underperform as the Kingsman movies are movies I was quite fond of. To add, I was excited about this movie and I really wanted to like it. But if future Kingsman movies continue to release while having little to no control, I don’t think there’s much to salvage. Lastly, the post-credits scene (essentially creating a “Fascist Avengers”) was extremely distasteful and should be skipped entirely if you are to view this movie.
Review #2: James Preston Poole (Lead Critic)
There are few film sequels I’ve seen quite as loathsome as Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Turning an earnestly satirical film like its predecessor into a sophomoric farce, all I could do is sit with my mouth agape at its decisions. It’s the type of movie that makes you lose faith in its director. To make a long sentiment short, I had no expectations for the prequel The King’s Man. Now that the final product is out, I can emphatically say… it’s a movie!
The King’s Man feels out of place arriving in the holiday season. Its disposability lends itself to the summer blockbuster movie season. There, it could find its window, cash out, and be forgotten about. Instead, its legacy will be yet another December 2021 movie under the shadow of Spider-Man: No Way Home. Which is a shame, because there’s not a ton really wrong with this movie. One might even say I enjoyed myself a bit.
Matthew Vaughn seems to have his mojo back again in the direction department. Sharply shot by cinematographer Ben Davis, Vaughn captures the era leading up to the Great War with great elegance. The film’s protagonists, Duke Orlando Cox (Ralph Fiennes) and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) are entry points into a world of wartime espionage. However, they also represent what bogs down the film: an air of self-seriousness.
An overcorrection from the dismal Golden Circle, The King’s Man is content to play as a straightforward spy and war movie. On principle, that’s not an awful decision. By the time Eggsy rolls into the picture in The Secret Service, the Kingsman organization is decades into operation. I like the idea of going back to basics. By the point you strip this much away, however, there’s hardly anything resembling what you came for.
I say hardly because there is some truly wacky stuff in parts of The King’s Man. Namely, Rhys Ifans’ dreadfully underused Rasputin. This weirdo comes (literally) dancing into the picture, burning up the screen with his bizarre charisma. He’s the comic version of the legend come to life. Unfortunately, he has minimal screen time. Another aspect we have to contend with is an overarching plot revolving around an unseen villain. Stuff that reminds of classic Bond and puts The King’s Man in the pulpy territory it feels most at home in.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t feel like anything that interests the filmmakers. The King’s Man remains diligently po-faced in its approach to the horrors of war. This works sometimes, as the script by Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek tells an engaging enough narrative. There’s a distinct sense of audience detachment, unfortunately, from the war. In one borderline brilliant scene where two groups in No Man’s Land must fight silently, it almost approaches conveying the time period. But that’s about it. It’s a period piece by way of Hollywood in all the ways we’ve seen before.
What we have seen before that should’ve been included more is Vaughn’s knack for kinetic action. A fight with Rasputin is a clear highlight of the film, while the climax kicks the requisite amount of ass. It’s worth it to get to these kinds of scenes. Almost like eating your vegetables first to get dessert, only the vegetables in question aren’t as nutritious as Vaughn and co. seem to think.
That isn’t to say The King’s Man is a waste of time or anything. It’s a semi-strong popcorn flick representing a step in the right direction for Matthew Vaughn and this franchise. If the proposed Kingsman 3 ends up happening, perhaps he’ll finally find that necessary middle ground. Until then, this’ll do… except for an atrocious credits scene that you should skip at all costs.
Neither critic is going to give The King’s Man a glowing recommendation. Whether or not its a slog or a decent popcorn flick is in the eye of the beholder. In any case, both critics agree that there are better films out right now to spend your time with. – Jacob Mauceri & James Preston Poole
Final Rating: 4.5/10
The King’s Man is now in theaters.