Updated: Feb 3, 2022
The climate of American cinema has become increasingly hostile toward gore, sex, and profanity, evidenced by the mostly bloodless and almost entirely chaste PG-13 fare that comprises the majority of box office hits in the last five years. For decades, Hays Code restrictions forced filmmakers to find creative ways to merely imply lust and debauchery. Abolition of the Code and the genesis of New Hollywood saw the American id explode onto screens across the country. Yet, it seems that ever since the 1980s, the powers that be have mounted a generally successful campaign to shove all those icky, impure thoughts back into the recesses of the country’s cinematic psyche. So, naturally, when The King’s Man began to market itself as a “gratuitous, vile, and insane” story of “sex, killing, and deceit” that featured a suitably disgusting take on Rasputin, my interest was piqued; subpar track record of its writers and director be damned.
Obviously, a Matthew Vaughn flick was never going to be the obscene savior that would return violence and perversion to American multiplexes, but The King’s Man is, at times, a noble effort. Quite possibly the most styleless of the turn of the century style-over-substance directors, Vaughn’s output has been consistently underwhelming. In fact, his only enduring creation is the “Free Bird” sequence in Kingsman: The Secret Service, a staple scene of gimmicky Instagram movie accounts. The joy Vaughn finds in Colin Firth massacring Republicans in an energetic, formalist oner is genuinely perverse and (arguably) irresponsible. He appears to have been chasing that high ever since, dumping out the misguided Kingsman: The Golden Circle and its new, disappointingly lifeless prequel. For all its absurd charms, The King’s Man is an exercise in austerity and pedanticism that consists primarily of people having trite conversations in ornately decorated rooms.
If memory serves, I would guess that about sixty percent of the movie’s runtime is spent on empty conversations between British aristocrats that are chock-full of platitudes about honor and the nature of violence, systemic and otherwise. A better movie that could have been seeps through the cracks now and again, flashes of which include a sexually charged ballet dance fight scene centered around Rhys Ifans’ hilarious Rasputin and a third act focused on retrieving the film negative of Woodrow Wilson (Ian Kelly) getting a blowjob from Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner). To the movie’s detriment, all of these caricatures are shoved to the wayside in favor of Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), a pair of milquetoast espionage protagonists that spend most of the movie arguing about whether or not they should actually kill anybody.
These “serious” moral themes are undercut by the flagrantly gleeful attitude the movie takes towards its occasional violence. When Orlando relays to his son the story of how he became a pacifist, the flashback is a Call of Duty-style POV action sequence that doesn’t convey the weight of killing so much as the fact that the movie should have a whole lot more of it. To anyone who watched the first two Kingsman entries, the answer to these superficial questions is clear from the get: killing is cool and it’s awesome when a bad guy dies in a gross way.
In fact, the borderline fascistic, ultraviolent ethos of the franchise is one of the few things that sets it apart from most of the digital action garbage of the last decade. The Kingsman movies have always been upfront about the kind of bloody, pea-brained catharsis they deliver, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s clear that Vaughn isn’t interested in interrogating the Kingsman ideology and paying lip service to Britain’s history of imperialist violence doesn’t make these movies righteous somehow. That the series needs two hours of pseudo-philosophical chit-chat to justify itself is not just a redundant concept, but a boring one.
Vaughn seems to be at war with himself throughout The King’s Man, alternating between his natural tendency toward mindless violence and a half-hearted attempt at saying something about that. For the most part, his supposed meditations weigh the movie down, creating a meandering plot that not only lacks momentum but also obsesses over its own minutiae, drowning out the little weirdness there is. However, to my surprise, one of Vaughn’s choices actually works. The turn at the end of the second act was so bold that, even if I wasn’t impacted by it, I had to respect it.
Still, boldness can’t make up for the fact that the movie is mostly just flat. Whereas the similarly ramshackle plots of Vaughn’s other two Kingsman movies were at least given a distracting pop culture paint job complete with needle drops and cartoonish production design, The King’s Man is nothing more than a light parody of Wikipedia’s take on World War I. The historical revisionism, while technically funny if explained out loud, is taken far too seriously. If I had to guess, Vaughn just wasn’t familiar enough with the history or the culture to do the full extent of his usual funhouse-mirror semi-satire. Casting August Diehl (who has also played Karl Marx) as Vladimir Lenin should be entertaining, but he, like Tom Hollander’s comical monarchs, is swept away in the movie’s pointlessly dour take on its concept.
The wasted potential is self-apparent. In a lot of ways, The King’s Man is the puny distant cousin of the more self-indulgent Inglourious Basterds, a movie that has the gumption to include a random, three-second Joseph Goebbels sex scene. The cast is given virtually nothing to do, particularly Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton, who are relegated to almost entirely functionary roles and still manage to outshine the leading cast. Other talented performers including Daniel Brühl, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Stanley Tucci are given little more than glorified cameos. When the movie finally embraces its inherent cruelty and stupidity in the third act, the action is twice as engaging as any of this year’s Marvel catastrophes, but even that isn’t saying all that much.
Alas, The King’s Man is no harbinger of a bloodier, sexier future for the American cinema, but it does posit that World War I happened solely because one guy wanted Scotland to leave the UK and, at the end of the day, I just think that’s cool.