Review by C.J. Bunce
The King’s Man was supposed to arrive in theaters Valentine’s Day 2020, Matthew Vaughn’s prequel to 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and we previewed the first trailer for it way back in July 2019 here at borg. Delayed for re-shoots and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wait was worth it. As good at espionage as any James Bond movie, better drama and intrigue than a Christopher Nolan or Sam Mendes movie, and easily the best war movie since Inglourious Basterds and Valkyrie, The King’s Man has it all, including the best performance by a former “Bond girl” and the best Bond song not in an actual Bond movie. A movie drawn from comic books that is grounded in historical accuracy? And also makes Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen look like kid stuff? Sounds like the year’s best drama and action movie all in one.
Where should we begin?
Stepping into that Kingsman role of the type perfected later in the franchise’s timeline by Colin Firth is the actor who should have played a Bond (but ended up as another M), the BAFTA-winning, twice Academy Award-nominated actor Ralph Fiennes as the Duke of Oxford. Every new performance by this master thespian is even better than the last, and here at age 57 (he’s 60 now) he delivers a James Bond-worthy action lead performance. It’s gritty, it’s heroic, and Fiennes is believable at every turn. And the role is action heavy: As head of a small British spy agency, Fiennes participates in the biggest and best choreographed swordfight scenes of any movie you’ve ever seen. He jumps out of a biplane, only to get caught in a wing and must cut his way out. He must scale a precipitous cliff–like a goat. He’s beaten to a pulp by a giant. And he’s nearly drowned in an icy pond by Rasputin. Thanks to his performance and some great special effects, you’d think Fiennes lived through it all.
The writing, by writer-director Matthew Vaughn in his third Kingsman film, is Vaughn’s best yet, and that includes his epic Kick-Ass movies, gritty Daniel Craig movie Layer Cake, and X-Men: First Class. This is a World War I movie, that despite being a part of a comic book-inspired superhero movie, actually delivers coverage of the war that is both respectful and emotionally as real as documentary footage. Vaughn’s explanation of key events of the war are peppered within the plot, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand building up to the U.S. decision to enter the war. The stakes of the film are the very real, very true fate of the planet. In short: no film this century has re-enacted the battlefield and heroism of World War I like this film.
Then you have this sprawling all-star cast. At the top you have Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Prince of Persia, Clash of the Titans), whose unassuming nanny Polly should have 007 after her name. Also in the Duke’s spy team is Djimon Hounsou (Guardians of the Galaxy, Shazam!, Captain Marvel, Furious 7) as Shola. Tom Hollander (Pirates of the Caribbean, Valkyrie, Gosford Park, Bohemian Rhapsody) expertly manages three roles in the film, as real-life cousins King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Czar Nicholas II of Russia. But for the action and comic book genre of the movie, it would be easy to see Hollander getting a supporting actor nod come Oscar time. Rhys Ifans (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Nanny McPhee Returns) creates a vile, realistic, thoroughly creepy and disturbing Rasputin. The ubiquitous Charles Dance offers another one of his memorable performances, this time as the British Secretary of War Herbert Kitchener. Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds, Goodbye Lenin, Captain America: Civil War, The Cloverfield Paradox, The Bourne Ultimatum) is a scheming German trying to gut England in the war. Matthew Goode, who already delivered a top-notch performance this year in The Offer, plays an advisor under Kitchener. Harris Dickinson, the new guy on set, gets a fine start as Oxford’s son Conrad. Hot Fuzz, Mr. Selfridge, and Hornblower’s Ron Cook is Archduke Ferdinand. Even Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Stanley Tucci have roles.
The King’s Man has style like a Bond movie with bits of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers of the 1960s. It even has an end credits pop song, called Measure of a Man (the mantra of the franchise), sung by FKA twigs, that it is every bit a theme appropriate for any Bond movie. Vaughn has done impressive work with source material from Mark Millar (Kick-Ass, Old Man Logan) and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen). This entry loses the goofy humor of the first two films, grounding the backstory for a reboot that could be even bigger and better. But it does have room for a really great goat.