‘The King’s Man’ Review: Matthew Vaughn’s ‘Kingsman’ Prequel Has Its Moments

Matthew Vaughn goes back in time for a Kingsman prequel with tonally confused results. Part goofball comedy, part war drama, part action film, 20th Century Studios’ The King’s Man, which Disney releases December 22, stars Ralph Fiennes as Orlando Oxford, one of the early members of the secret Kingsman intelligence agency. Like his successors, he is suitably committed to fine tailoring and the aristocratic lifestyle, along with saving the world.

When his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) comes of age, Orlando is ready to welcome the boy into the secret society — but it’s World War I, and Conrad is more interested in enlisting. When tragedy befalls the family, it’s up to a small team to tackle a pressing issue: stopping a plot by a group of history’s criminal masterminds.
 
This is where you can add ‘revisionist history’ to the list of genres — or at least, an imaginative secret history that flirts with absurdity. We have Daniel Brühl as hustler Erik Jan Hanussen, Valerie Pachner as Mata Hari and, most memorably, Rhys Ifans as Grigori Rasputin. Ifans is a gloriously theatrical, lascivious Rasputin, roaring into a formal dinner with wild hair and gothic eyes, flanked by burlesque escorts and stunning society into submission.

The subplot that follows involves a clumsy attempt to set Conrad up as a honey trap — an initially amusing scenario that quickly descends into tittering, childish homophobia. Other comic performances hit different notes, and Tom Hollander playing three cousins — King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas — seems more likely to confuse than entertain, despite his talents.
 
Perhaps surprisingly, The King’s Man is most consistent in its dramatic second act: Conrad’s wartime experiences are upsetting, and there are palpable moments of grief. Gemma Arterton lends heart and verve as housekeeper/spy Polly, though she’s underused — as is Djimon Hounsou as Shola, the elder Oxford’s other sidekick.

Fiennes emerges as the hero in an overlong third act that features slick performances and action, but little narrative interest. This blend of serious war film, boys’ own adventure and preposterous comedy has its moments, but it’s a strange brew that ultimately falls a little flat.

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