Monday, January 10, 2022

The King's Man

I am genuinely curious what the guy in my screening of The King's Man who was all "Aw damn bro!" when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated was expecting to happen. I say that not to mock him - we didn't spend a whole lot of time on World War I when I was in high school, basically just enough time for me to learn that this event was the precipitating moment, and the surprised person a few rows back could have been 25 years younger with it being correspondingly more ancient history - but because it seems like the one spot in a movie where you can be absolutely sure you know what's going to happen, and it's not like the film took a sudden unexpected turn into intersecting with history in that alley. It's an odd reaction, but that's part of the fun of seeing movies in a theater with other people; you get those odd little footnotes.

This movie wasn't actually one of my priorities at any point, considering that I didn't bother with the second and didn't realize that it was successful enough to merit a third. I wound up coming pretty much entirely for the action, as it is the last film to see release with Bradley Allan in charge of stunts and second-unit work. I can't say that I knew his name particularly well before his death this summer, but it was one of those cases where you suddenly realize what a big deal he was, as the go-to guy for both Matthew Vaughn and Edgar Wright. Those amazing fights in Kingsman: The Secret Service and The World's End were his doing, and his work was a big reason why final project Shang-Chi had the credibility it did.

So, yes, I was hoping that this would have a scene that got the same sort of thing from Ralph Fiennes as Kingsman did for Colin Firth, because realizing that you should not screw with Mr. Darcy was a kick. It doesn't, really, although it's been kind of interesting to see him embrace this sort of genre role in the past decade or so. He was very much associated with prestige films when he first started doing film in the 1990s, and never quite seemed to fit in when cast in something like The Avengers (as John Steed, not a Marvel guy). Just too darn serious, and too upper-class. He felt classy and, well, soft, and there wasn't much indication he could put something else under that. He barely registered for me in the Harry Potter movies I did see, under a lot of makeup, and it was a surprise to see him genuinely funny in The Grand Budapest Hotel, because he didn't seem the sort. Skyfall was when it seemed like he'd aged into genre work, even if he was playing the sort of guy one would figure has a hereditary title there. He got a little harder as he aged, with a few lines that indicated something other than just privilege and comfort. One wonders, a bit, if he's sort of in the same place Anthony Hopkins was at about the same age, having collected all sort of awards for prestigious productions and wanting to do more vividly exciting things.

Of course, he's still Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes with that first name pronounced in an almost effete way, and his director here is one Matthew De Vere Drummond, and I kind of wonder if that kind of influences the way this film went. The original Kingsman, if I remember correctly, posited that the secret society was formed by tailors who had made a great deal of money off the upper class but were not actually part of it, and indeed aimed to sort of undo the trouble that the aristocracy caused. I actually spent the movie not recognizing this as an origin story because Duke Oxford was one of Them, and he never really stopped being such even if he grew less tolerant of violence and colonialism. I don't think it's the central weakness of the film, but I must admit, I spent a lot of the film more interested in how Gemma Arterton's Polly got to be that hyper-competent, and also wondered if there was more about her being an influence on the Oxfords cut from the movie than the hint of a romance with her charming widower boss.

The King's Man

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 January 2022 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, subtitled DCP)

Between the release date shuffles due to Disney's purchase of Twentieth Century Fox and Covid-19, The King's Man has been delayed long enough for that to be the story around it, rather than why it exists at all. The first Kingsman sequel did okay at the box office but still dropped off fairly notably from the previous film, and as near as I can tell there's not a particularly dedicated fanbase hungry for details on the backstory. Most likely, co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn just had an idea he couldn't shake. He's good enough at this to make a fair movie, though not one worth a wait that has pushed the property toward the back of people's minds.

It opens in 1902, with Duke Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), a former war hero now dedicated to the Red Cross, disgustedly examining a concentration camp in South Africa being run by Colonel Kitchener (Charles Dance) and his aide-de-camp Morton (Matthew Goode) as it comes under attack. A dozen years later, he's an even more devoted pacifist, having sworn that his now nearly-adult son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) would not go to war. But it's 1914, and Kitchener is a general well-trusted by King George (Tom Hollander) despite his hawkish nature, and a mysterious Shepherd is plotting to drag Europe into war, with agents Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl) and Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) having the ears of the Kaiser and Tsar. George and Kitchener tap Oxford to investigate rumors around Archduke Ferdinand and, later, the Tsar, assisted by Conrad and two servants who are more than they appear in African chauffeur Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), Conrad's former governess.

It's been long enough since the first film that the details of the Kingsman agency's history it set forth may be fuzzy, enough for this prequel to not necessarily feel like the origin story it eventually reveals itself to be - my recollection was that the founders were pointedly not noblemen like Oxford - to the point where it might have been better off being something Kingsman-like but not actually part of that franchise. Beyond that, this is a film kind of done in by its own ambition. Matthew Vaughn often seems to want to do more than "Kingsman, but 100 years earlier" but Vaughn's heightened take on history doesn't mesh well with the more serious, earnest things he's asking of Ralph Fiennes and Harris Dickinson as the Oxfords. Fitting historical events into a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory is a fun game, but it can be rather less fun when it's sharing space with men haunted by actual history, and that storyline can feel diminished by being next to the more free-wheeling material.

The story is messy in other ways, too. There's so much gravity to Oxford that there's little time to flesh out Shola and Polly, despite them obviously having backstory of their own, for instance. There are groan-worthy twists and "surprises", especially for how Vaughn spends a great deal of effort making sure that the audience can't see Shepherd's face without making the question of who he is actually intriguing beyond the fact that it's being hidden - this guy being the puppetmaster behind Rasputin and others fills the movie's needs, but isn't really satisfying. Vaughn sets too slow a pace for either satire or action, while the drama's not strong enough story-wise to handle the time given it.

One can't deny that the thing is awfully well-staffed, though. Ralph Fiennes is, unsurprisingly, pretty darn good as Oxford; not only can he obviously handle the dramatic material, but he's aged into a guy who looks like he's got the sort of history that has him capable of violence, with action guru Brad Allan building fight scenes that let him be efficient and good with a sword. There's nothing quite so jaw-dropping as Colin Firth kicking some ass in the first, but it's the sort of "build fights around how a guy is imposing when he's maybe not a real fighter" material that has fueled the last decade or so of Liam Neeson's career. On top of that, there's a very nice supporting cast - as mentioned, having more Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou wouldn't harm the movie at all, with fun work from Daniel Brühl and Rhys Ifans and Harris Dickinson capturing a certain sort of young aristocratic hero as Conrad and making him fit into this kind of film. Everything around them is slick as heck as well, a modern-looking filmmaking that doesn't feel anachronistic.

There are plenty of fun moments, and maybe the whole thing would have worked if Vaughn had been content to just do the sort of shallow edginess the original comic book series's creator specializes in. Doing both that and a more earnest drama tends to point up the places where they don't easily work together, making for a movie that drags a bit and occasionally frustrates for all the good pieces it contains.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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