'The King's Man' Review: Hulu's Demented Spy Prequel Kicks History in the Face
Ralph Fiennes and Gemma Arterton battle Rasputin in the new Kingsman movie, streaming on Hulu in the US and Disney Plus elsewhere.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
You know what history lessons need? More fights. The King's Man is a loud, lewd and demented romp through the politics and tragedy of the past, a blackly comic and often deranged roller coaster of stylized action spectacle decked out in a range of outrageous mustaches.
Originally released in December up against Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Matrix Resurrectionsand the omicron variant, The King's Man struggled at the box office despite being the latest in a series whose previous outings proved unexpected hits. Now it's streaming services Hulu in the US and Disney Plus in the UK, perhaps it'll find an audience in the mood for wry humor, stylish fights and generally outrageous action.
The Kingsman flicks follow a suite of suave spies operating out of a discreet tailor's shop in London, armed with impeccable suits, gadgets that would make James Bond blush and a gleefully irreverent twist on the espionage genre. The series began as a comic called The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, before director Matthew Vaughan's 2014 action movie adaptation made Colin Firth an unlikely action hero. Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson and newcomer Taron Egerton also starred in a flick that was enough of a hit to spawn a sequel, 2017's The Golden Circle, starring Julianne Moore, Channing Tatum and Elton John.
Now Vaughan brings the formula of black comedy, genre-twisting self-awareness and hyperstylized action sequences to a prequel exploring how the Kingsman agency came into being during the dark days of World War I. Comparable to the supercharged Sherlock Holmes films directed by Matthew Vaughan's old mucker Guy Ritchie, it's like Brideshead Revisited meets John Wick. Trashy and deliberately and provocatively fun, The King's Man does for spy movies what The Suicide Squad did for superheroes.
This prequel film opens in 1902, in the heat and dust of the Boer War between imperial Britain and South African farmers. Ralph Fiennes plays the pacifist Duke or Earl or Lord of Oxford, disquieted by his fellow aristocratic Brits smugly showing off their new invention: something called a "concentration camp." This is the first sign The King's Man has something to say about aristocracy. And it isn't exactly subtle, delivering a scathing polemic against venal, grasping, power-hungry politicians across the globe. In a bravura piece of casting as scathing satire, the same actor (Tom Hollander) plays Germany's kaiser, Russia's czar and Britain's king, to emphasize how unthinkable global bloodshed sprung from petty family feuding.
One dead wife and 12 years later, Oxford and his fully grown son Conrad (an angelic Harris Dickinson) are dispatched on a sensitive mission to feel out Euro-noble Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Scholars of WWI know how that works out. As the world is plunged into war, father and son set out on a globe-trotting quest to head off a fiendish conspiracy.
Though Kingsman began as a comic, this prequel story was concocted for this film and isn't directly adapted from any comic. Yet it feels more like an adaptation of a series of comic issues, because it's divided up into such an episodic structure. That doesn't do much for the overall cohesiveness of the film, especially when the most memorable threat is dispatched early and the film struggles to fill the gap. But it also rushes along at such a breathless pace, filled with a jittery bombardment of flashbacks and inserts, that you barely have time to notice.
Visual flourishes are everywhere, like a match cut between huge mustaches on opposite sides of the world, a dizzying zoom up a torpedo tube, or a devastating time-lapse shot showing pastoral countryside bombarded to trench-sliced muddy hellscape in just a few moments. As you'd expect from this series, the fights are intricately choreographed and exhilaratingly bonkers. Among the cast, Rhys Ifans in particular gives it his full-throated all as a feral Rasputin. But it isn't all fun: There's a startlingly nightmarish silent knife fight which provides a macabre counterpoint to the other jolly punch-ups.
The credits list a history adviser and a facial hair supervisor, which says a lot about this film's historical priorities. The adventure is filled with characters and tropes recognizable from a childhood spent devouring adventure romps from another age, like Biggles or The Thirty-Nine Steps. The sort of ripping yarns in which heroes are dashing amateurs and villains are "saturnine," looming from the shadows in Homburg hats while a shadowy mastermind sitting atop a mountain directs a satanic council of crude national stereotypes. They don't make 'em like that anymore, and for good reason. The problem is that a lovingly re-created pastiche of these outdated and questionable attitudes only repeats those attitudes unless there's also a clear effort to skewer, undermine and reject them. For example, it's important to look at who lives, who dies, who wins and how they do so. Some filmmakers seem to think it's enough to play it straight and trust that a modern audience sees outdated attitudes for what they are. But that's an abdication of artistic responsibility.
The King's Man offers enough sly winks to signal it knows what it's doing playing with these dubious old tropes. But usually that comes in the form of making Gemma Arterton pop up and do something hilariously badass, only to then sideline her again. The hero is motivated by the death of a woman, and there's a lengthy sequence built around the heroes' panic that they may be seduced into having sex with -- gasp! -- a man.
Considering how loudly The King's Man proclaims its central point -- politicians are all bastards -- it's also oddly muddled in its convictions. Instead of rejecting the horribly unequal privilege of aristocracy, the film venerates Ralph Fiennes' saintly nobleman even when he casually takes the kind of unilateral violent action we're apparently meant to despise in the villains.
As in the earlier Kingsman films, instead of true equality, the luckiest working-class characters are offered the trappings of aristocracy. In this film, the Kingsman spy ring begins as a network of domestic servants. Some of these characters are given names (a decent enough indicator of whether a movie values a character), but many common folk are given short shrift. The Russian revolution, for example, is portrayed not as a working-class movement but a murderous mob. And the core concept of the series is built around the titular tailor's shop, but it turns out these aristocrats just moved in and took over -- we never see them involving or even asking the people working there. King Arthur's table may be round, but not everyone gets a seat.
You might say I'm reading too much into a film that also features Rasputin having a dance-fight against a spy with no trousers on, but this whole series is explicitly founded on such questions of class. Still, even if aspects of it don't hold up to scrutiny, I have to say I was entertained as it pinballed from moment to moment. Brazen and bizarre, The King's Man is rarely boring.
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