The Kingsman franchise has been one of the few would-be Bond successors to actually convey the wit, humor, fun, and all-around sexy sleekness of 007, all with the modern action edge fans love. Director Matthew Vaughn's spirited adaptation of comic creator Mark Millar (Kick-Ass, Wanted) and Dave Gibbons' (Watchmen) work seemed like a perfect fit, even when it didn't always deliver at its best (see: Kingsman: The Golden Circle). However, with the prequel film, The King's Man, Vaughn takes the franchise (and his filmmaking style) in a bold new direction -with both "better" and "worse" results that land this third installment somewhere in the middle of the franchise.
The story of The King's Man is actually much more of a historical war drama than many fans are probably prepared for. In early 20th-century Europe, the kindly Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) tries to live a pacifist life with his teenage son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), based on a solemn promise made after a terrible family tragedy. However, Orlando finds it increasingly hard to keep that promise as Conrad becomes increasingly agitated about enlisting in the armed forces like his father before him. There's even greater pressure when General Herbert Kitchener (Charles Dance) comes to Oxford with suspicions of a plot to push England, Russia, and Germany into a war that could engulf the world.
Well, we know history takes a dark turn into the hellish chaos of World War I, but in The King's Man, we learn about the secret cabal of unexpected heroes that banded together to turn back that tide of darkness – by defeating the one man truly responsible for fueling it.
As stated, The King's Man is a major departure from the formula of the first two Kingsman films. While those movies always had elements of weighty character and family drama tied to the central character of Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the overall tone of Kingsman has never been a somber or serious one. The King's Man, on the other hand, is a dark, drab, and often downright depressing chronicle of tragically ridiculous circumstances that led to WWI, and the horrific consequences of what happened during that time of war. The film is truly only a Kingsman prequel in the loosest sense, as the creation of the organization is an outcome of this story – meaning there's very little super-spy action that takes place in its 131-minute run time. For a lot of Kingsman fans looking for that Christmas movie blockbuster escapism, this is not your best bet.
Of course, with Matthew Vaughn at the helm, there is still plenty of fun to be had in The King's Man, despite the lengthy stretches of wartime drama. The villain side of this prequel is stacked with some fun and notable characters, like Rhys Ifans' Rasputin and Daniel Brühl's Hanussen – funny, exaggerated takes on real-life historical figures, which are probably the best echo of the Kingsman style and tone fans know and love. Thanks to Vaughn, the moments where the heroes and villains do indeed clash are all satisfyingly thrilling, fun, and over-the-top violent (sometimes gross) action sequences that are in fact some of the best in the series. It's the drab trenches of drama between these explosive highlights of action that ultimately land King's Man in the middle of things.
The main cast is also the best ensemble the franchise has offered yet, with much of the film being carried on Ralph Fiennes's capable shoulders. Due to the nature of the story (no spoilers), Orlando Oxford (Fiennes), Conrad (Dickinson), sharpshooter Polly Wilkins (Gemma Arterton), and all-around badass warrior Shola (Djimon Hounsou) are more than a team – they really do feel like a family. The four actors' banter and stunt coordination all flows well and help to pay off those epic tag-team fights; for the most part, this is the Kingsman team fans will likely end up caring about the most, and they spark a whole new potential lane of the franchise to be explored in sequels. There is a mid-credits scene, so, indeed, this prequel story may not be over yet.
The King's Man is better action and team-dynamic fun than we've seen from the Kingsman franchise so far, at the somewhat heavy cost of some overly serious and dark wartime drama. It's the sort of mixed bag best sorted through at a matinee price, but a valid reminder of why Kingsman can truly fill the void after Bond.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
The King's Man will be in theaters on December 22nd.