Let’s tally up the score for a moment. I really liked Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service (based on the Mark Millar graphic novels), but I felt like Kingsman: The Golden Circle was a huge misstep in the wrong direction. So after the disappointing sequel, how does the prequel fair?
We’re on the precipice of World War I. Three cousins find themselves the rulers of the three European and Eastern mega-powers: King George of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas of Russia (all played by Tom Hollander). Meanwhile, sinister forces, led by Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), lurk in the shadows to infiltrate the confidence of the three leaders and set in motion a world war, starting with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. Hanussen tears down the trust between cousins with his close relationship with Wilhem, while manipulative monk Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) tears into the Tsar, all the while a secret mole is running in King George’s circle of influence.
Meanwhile, famed pacifist Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) is still reeling from the death of his wife by terrorists and vows to keep his son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson), out of danger. But Conrad shows great combat ability and prowess in the intelligence game —thanks to Orlando’s servant Polly (Gemma Arterton) and advisor Shola (Djimon Hounsou). So, Orlando brings his son Conrad into the secret intelligence operation, making him a valuable team member, but this relationship is fraught with considerable father/son issues.
Orlando begins grooming his son to be the best agent starting with the controversial assassination of Rasputin. The plot of The King’s Man is so interwoven with actual historical events that in a later mission, Orlando’s operation needs to coax the United States into entering the war. I love this blurring of lines. Of course, this is an origin story, and with every new operation and new lesson learned, we witness the slow formation of what will be The Kingsman.
“…set in motion a world war starting with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand…”
Weirdly, what I like about the film written by Karl Gajdusek and director Matthew Vaughn is what it doesn’t do with the full knowledge that this is a prequel. Many prequels take steps to foreshadow events in the future. Instead, The King’s Man successfully takes the ideas of the intelligence agency’s origin’s in The Secret Service and simply tells the story without needing to overtly connect to the first film in some sappy, eye-winking way.
The connection between the prequel and the original is the idea of the spy group itself (which I loved in the original) as a secret organization dedicated to global-political stabilization, the essential elements of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the suave, sophisticated nature of the organization where “manners maketh the man.” The other connection made is the comic book violence and over-the-top villains and villainy.
Unfortunately, the first half is bland as it’s pretty much setting up the global plot and passing the torch to Conrad as he joins his father’s underground intelligence agency. We’ve seen this all before, in the first film. The King’s Man doesn’t pick up in any truly incredible way until the second half, where a fantastic narrative twist happens. At the 100-minute mark, this single moment of brilliant, bold, unexpected storytelling comes out of nowhere, forcing the plot to move in a courageous direction. Honestly, when this happened, I woke up from my boredom and truly cared about what was happening.
Today’s problem with action is that so many films use the same overused computer-generated excitement that the only way to stand out from the pack is through bold narrative choices. Sadly, I had to wait a long while for The King’s Man to become a good movie. But it does get there eventually.
"…brilliant, bold, unexpected storytelling comes out of nowhere..."