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The King’s Man Review: A Proper Prequel That Dares To Get Serious While Having A Bloody, Bawdy Good Time

Score another win for the Kingsman series.

Harris Dickinson is offered a gun by Ralph Fiennes in a well dressed room in The King's Man.
(Image: © 20th Century Studios/MARV)

You can get a real good feeling as to what type of movies the Kingsman series is trying to make, even with only two entries in the modern day half of the franchise. That formula would only grow stronger, both in signature and expectations, if we were approaching the third entry of co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn’s adventures with Harry Hart and Eggsy Unwin – but now is the perfect time for a curveball if there ever were one, and The King’s Man provides a slightly different spin on the espionage outfit at the heart of this saga. The World War I-set prequel dares to get a bit more serious when it comes to the roots of the spy ring from which it derives its name, but the film still remembers to keep the R-rated antics up, providing a bloody and bawdy good time for all.

Jumping back to tell us about the Kingsman Agency’s origins, The King's Man introduces us to Orlando, the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes): a man who wants nothing to do combat after a very personal loss. His son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) couldn’t be further from his father’s ideals, though, ready to serve after a life of being sheltered by his family’s influence. This gap of opinions only grows as a madman named The Shepherd wants to trigger a great war in the name of upsetting the balance of power on the world stage.

Matthew Vaughn’s latest Kingsman film is a slightly toned down prequel that knows when to properly use the cheeky charm of its parent franchise.

Right in its plotting The King’s Man is already differentiating itself from the films that preceded it. Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Karl Gajdusek dial back the more outrageous tone of the modern adventures of the Kingsman Agency in the name of showing this fictitious body’s formation in a very real era. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t time to cut loose, as the trademark cheeky charm that made Kingsman such a popular series is still very much in play. 

Furthering the themes of duty in the name of family ties, The King's Man starts with a more intelligence-minded agenda. It's only because of events breaking as they do throughout the film that Orlando, Conrad, and their cohorts are able to break personal codes in the name of the mission. When that happens, all bets are off, and the fun that Kingsman fans have come to enjoy in the previous films really begins.

With a story that includes everything from a sword fight set to a Tchikovsky mixtape, humor at the expense of the very real lusts of Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), and even the inclusion of what’s best described as goat parkour, The King’s Man doesn’t take itself too seriously. Balancing its tone even handedly, this prequel goes a long way towards forming the Kingsman universe that Matthew Vaughn and his co-conspirators first introduced to audiences in 2014.

A cross between world building, and world history, The King’s Man uses real events and people to build a bridge to the franchise’s more outrageous future.

Another huge difference between The King’s Man and its thematic successors is that there are some very real figures acting as part of the central conflict. Rather than just including celebrities as hostages, there are actual military figures and events present during Orlando and Conrad’s journey to form the best independent intelligence agency they can. Figures on all sides, like Rasputin, Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), and Herbert Kitchener (Charles Dance) contribute to moving things along, without sparing the historical details. 

There's plenty of room to get those sorts of things wrong too, as World War I is the focus, providing firm boundaries as to where these clandestine adventures can touch. Humor does find its way quite conveniently into the reality of these events, as seen in Tom Hollander's triple casting in the roles of warring cousins King George V, Tsar Nicolas II, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. Playing the fact of their royal likenesses straight, it allows Hollander to stretch his acting and comedy muscles as very different world leaders, each with their own sidekicks to fuel the laughs and warfare.

Grounding the story in reality only makes the further additions to the Kingsman ranks more intriguing. Particularly, Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton) provide some thrilling contrast to the characters who can’t really go all out in The King’s Man – though there’s definitely a thin line, as Rhys Ifans’ Rasputin is just as outrageous as Shola, Polly, or Orlando when it comes time to battle. Fiction and history are evenly matched, and it only enriches the playing field for future outings.

The King’s Man delivers a smashing good time for anyone who likes their holiday with a naughty twist of well-tailored action, adventure, and comedy.

Matthew Vaughn hopes to do two things with The King’s Man: please the fans, and convert previous detractors. Tweaking the formula of this still-growing franchise only where needed is a great example of how the world of prequels can continue to shed the tarnished reputation established over the years. Backfilling historical gaps alluded to in the Kingsman series, this isn’t just a clear cut puzzle piece that snaps into place with what we know from before, and there’s plenty of room for surprises in what’s to come.

Blockbusters are certainly no stranger to the December box office, as seen with the direct competition that’s flanking The King’s Man in its opening weekend. The film’s greatest asset is only highlighted by this fact, as it’s an R-rated spectacle that delivers a smashing good time for anyone who likes their holiday with a naughty twist of well-tailored action, adventure, and comedy.  In a market where most of the thrills are either meant for the whole family, or a more maturely adjacent segment of the audience, a very adult experience sets Matthew Vaughn's latest efforts apart from the crowd. 

Offering a new flavor of adventure for the more serious but still comedically open minded viewer, the film may find those who dismissed the previous movies crossing the aisle.  In light of The King's Man's strong, innovative continuation of the Kingsman brand, that's not an alien possibility. Should it succeed, it would be a victory not only for the franchise, but also for those looking for something both a little more off-beat and familiar on the big screen.