When it comes to sequels/prequels, there's a certain unspoken contract between the film and the viewer. That contract says the film will attempt to deliver something akin to what the viewer expects. Yes, there can be a few changes or alterations to shake things up. The bottom line, though, is that the viewer arrives with a reasonable expectation of what they'll get, because it's what they were given before. The King's Man utterly violates that contract. This prequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle is almost nothing like its predecessors. Even if it wasn't an overlong, tedious bore, the shift in tone would be enough to confound fans of the series.
The first two were intentionally over-the-top action pictures with a heap of quirky humor backing up the violent mayhem. The King's Man has very little action until the last twenty minutes. Instead, we get a dull tale about how the secret spy organization known as Kingsman was formed. Far more time is spent listening to characters blabber on than witnessing fights and stunts.
There are a lot of moving pieces in the film. Too many, in fact, making the plot almost impossible to summarize easily. Ralph Fiennes plays Orlando Oxford, an aristocrat who promised his wife that he would keep their son out of war as she lay dying. WWI is breaking out, and the now-grown Conrad (Harris Dickinson) wants to enlist. Orlando is also working on a plan to convince America to join the war, and he oversees a secret network comprised of the servants of influential people; they pass relevant information back and forth. Then there's a mysterious villain who is attempting to bring Great Britain to its knees, with the help of some high-profile agents, including Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) and Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner). These various elements never tie together into a meaningful whole.
The King's Man attempts to meld actual history with fictional elements to suggest that Kingsman was created because of events that transpired during World War I. That might have worked had director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn possessed a firmer gasp on what he was going after. The movie jumps all over the place like a hyperactive child, never settling on a single, focused direction. Just when you start to follow a plot thread, it abruptly shifts to something else. Worse, the historical figures are mere props, here to garner cheap laughs and/or make the story feel more substantive than it really is.
Both previous Kingsman adventures were action-heavy. Who could forget the insane church shootout that turned Colin Firth into a world-class brawler? The King's Man offers a few seconds of more traditional action (primarily sword fights) intermittently, but withholds the good stuff for the very end – and even then it's not as good as what came before. The majority of time is spent listening to Orlando prattle on to his housekeeper (Gemma Arterton) and other politically-connected associates. Nothing in the movie raises your pulse, gets you on the edge of your seat, or works up any suspense.
The King's Man can't even make the incorporation of real figures fun. In his dramatic confrontation with Rasputin, the villain insists that Orlando remove his pants, before shoving an entire almond cake in his mouth. Such forced wackiness is no substitute for genuine wit. Then again, at least it provides a mild break from the otherwise pervasive monotony of this insipid prequel.
out of four
The King's Man is rated R for sequences of strong/bloody violence, language, and some sexual material. The running time is 2 hours and 11 minutes.