The King’s Man is an entertaining, flawed film. Despite a strong pedigree in front of and behind the camera, something doesn’t quite connect. Sure, you’ll be entertained by fine performances and an intriguing and surprisingly fact-based story filled with series of historical realities that are given a twist from the plot’s need for darker machinations. I think the issue ultimately comes from the screenplay, which has delightfully scripted lines and characters saying earnest, interesting things, it’s just never able to calibrate for tonal consistency. The tonal shifts aren’t smooth and some moments, while masterfully dramatic, are ill fitting. I’d recommend for fans of the series as there’s too much good here to miss, but casual fans might not be as happy.
The Production: 3.5/5
“Our enemies think we are gentlemen, but reputation is what people think of you. Character is what you are.”
A secret, sinister, and nefarious group plots to create turmoil and widespread war across Europe. The Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), who lost his wife during war on the African continent, runs a spy network that’s caught on to the evil strings being pulled that are manipulating England, Germany, and Russia into a grotesque world war. The Duke’s son, Conrad (Harris Dickson), is eager to join the war effort, but The Duke promised his late wife that he would protect their son from the evils of deadly conflict at all costs, but the tides of war prove overwhelming, and the world will never be the same.
The King’s Man in concept was a fine idea to help nurture the budding Kingsman franchise. The first film was a delight of humor and action while the sequel lost its way a little with plotting and execution too fantastic for what audiences were apparently looking for. This prequel, showing how the secret Kingsman intelligence agency was born out of the machinations of World War I, set its sights on grounding the plot and taking somewhat a more serious-toned path to play out the action and adventure. It almost succeeds.
One of director Matthew Vaughn’s strongest gifts is his visual flair for action and excitement, and in finding effective balances of dramatic emotional weight amidst stories and scenes of outrageous and sometimes cartoon-like action shot and constructed with giddying skill. Odd, then, that the tonal shifts we experience in The King’s Man feel most indelicate and off compared to his better films. One can appreciate a more somber tone as the script chides the futility of war and shows the immense tragedy of death and destruction from the first World War, but amongst interesting moments of character conflict about war and serving, there are visuals and fight scenes that fit in a film that isn’t aiming for a more grounded dramatic tone. This mainly affects the first and second acts, as the third act enjoys greater comfort in the lighter tones and splendid action where Vaughn naturally excels.
The cast are all good, with Ralph Fiennes as The Duke, Orlando Oxford, delivering magnificently a man for whom his pacificist vow collides with the reality of global war and his position to do something about it. He shares the film’s most important and best relationship dynamic with Harris Dickson who plays his son, Conrad. Dickson equips himself nicely in his scenes and during action moments. Rhys Ifans is Rasputin, one of the nefarious members of the evil Cabal pulling the strings of war. Ifans gives the film its most outlandish and bizarrely entertaining performance. It’s both absurd and absolutely riveting and you’re never sure if it’s too much or just what the film is needing. Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou play Polly and Shola, two critical members of the Duke’s spy network, and both deliver strong, interesting characters but we don’t see enough of them, Gemma in particular. The remainder of the cast, which includes Charles Dance as Lord Kitchener, Daniel Brühl as Erik Jan Hnussen, Tom Hollander (in three roles), and Matthew Goode as Morton, are well suited and more than fine in their roles. Performances are all grounded given the at times silliness of the plot, but much of the story in this film is grounded in actual people and moments of The Great War, so I supposed one shouldn’t be too surprised.
The film is expertly crafted, as you might expect, and Vaughn finds ways to make the film feel like a full-scale spectacle regardless of any limitations he’s facing, budgetary or otherwise. To achieve to that, Vaughn is more comfortable with the artifice you get from visual effects work that a bigger budget or more time could deliver. So, you’ll find occasionally an animated, false sense from scenery and action that remind you that you’re watching a construct, while other times you will barely notice the digital touches at all.
The King’s Man is almost a terrific prequel. The talent involved here is top-notch, the plot of this film grand and interesting, the production design splendid, and the action sequences imaginative and engrossing. The film is also, periodically, tonally uncomfortable and the lighter, cheekier moments from the first two films sorely missed. I hope the middling response to The King’s Man doesn’t hurt the chances of seeing a franchise sequel with the return of Taron Egerton as Eggsy. I guess time will tell.
3D Rating: NA
Framed at 2.39:1, The King’s Man is delicious on 4K (2160p HEVC/H.265). Bright, bold colors punctuate costumes and set design, with moodier browns and darker colors that retain distinction found aplenty during the critical battlefield moment. Flesh tones are natural, even a little warm for some of my pastier English brethren, and the precision and clarity on offer are splendid. HDR 10 allows the black levels to become even deeper and colors warmer. Superb depth and a shiny quality give the film a polished sheen that, despite the setting, seems to work in its favor. Some less than perfect visual effects moments notwithstanding, this is a terrific looking disc.
The Dolby Atmos track on offer here is a blast. Precision surround sound moments that work to keep up with Matthew Vaughn’s directorial style, and booming bass in all the right places – and there are many moments where it packs the right punch – produce a fun audio offering for the film. Dialogue is crisp and clear predominantly from the center channel and the lush, thematic score from Matthew Margeson and Dominic Lewis is given space to breathe. Speaking of the score, this is the best of the now three films – it’s orchestrally expressive and the themes are served well. Fans of the film will enjoy how this film sounds.
Special Features: 3.5/5
A much better than expected collection of special features for the film covering all the major areas of the film’s production. These extras are particularly important given the wide availability of this film on various streaming platforms in advance of the disc being available (HBO Max and Hulu for example both have this film on offer free for subscribers). The disc is the way to go for the absolute best experience, and the special features on offer sweeten that deal.
- The King’s Man: The Great Game Begins Documentary
- A Generation Lost – Discover how the filmmakers created a richly textured story that explores the origins of the Kingsman spy organization.
- Oxfords and Rogues – Meet the phenomenal new cast of characters Matthew Vaughn has assembled.
- All the World’s a Stage – Delve into the meticulous world-building of THE KING’S MAN with interviews, on-location footage, artwork, and details of on-set construction and design.
- Instruments of War – Experience the analog spy tech and early 20th century weaponry utilized in THE KING’S MAN and see a breakdown of the precise execution and evolution of the major stunts and combat in the film.
- Fortune Favors the Bold – Join Matthew Vaughn and his team for music scoring and sound design.
- Long Live the Kingsman – Cast and crew reveal their thoughts about their collective journey through the very special experience of making THE KING’S MAN.
- No Man’s Land – Experience the creative process behind the harrowing knife battle sequence in several stages: rehearsals, storyboards, interviews, and on-set footage, culminating with the atmospheric VFX.
- Remembrance and Finding Purpose – Learn about amazing organizations such as The Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes, two U.K.-based resources for recovery, well-being, and employment for military veterans. Also hear why Matthew Vaughn strongly supports their mission.
The King’s Man is an entertaining, flawed film. Despite a strong pedigree in front of and behind the camera, something doesn’t quite connect. Sure, you’ll be entertained by fine performances and an intriguing and surprisingly fact-based story filled with series of historical realities given a twist from the plot’s need for darker machinations. The issue ultimately comes from the screenplay, which has delightfully scripted lines and characters saying earnest, interesting things, it’s just never able to calibrate for tonal consistency. The tonal shifts aren’t smooth and some moments, while masterfully dramatic, are ill fitting. I’d recommend for fans of the series as there’s too much good here to miss, but casual fans might not be as happy.
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