Do you know what history lessons need? No more fights. New movie The king’s man is a boisterous, obscene, and pretty demented adventure through the politics and tragedy of the past, a comedic and often quite disturbing black roller coaster of stylized action spectacle in an array of mustaches.
Opening December 22 in competition with both The Matrix Resurrections and the omicron variant, The King’s Man is the latest in a series that has proven to be a courageous contender at the box office. The Kingsman series follows a suave sequel of spies operating out of a low-key tailor shop in London, armed with crisp suits, gadgets that would make James Bond blush, and a cheerfully irreverent twist of the spy genre. It started as a comic book called The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, before the directormakes Colin Firth an unlikely action hero. Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson and newcomer Taron Egerton also starred in a film that was successful enough to spawn a sequel, 2017 , with Julianne Moore, Channing Tatum and Elton John.
Now Vaughan brings the formula for dark comedy, gendered self-awareness, and hyperstylized action sequences to a prequel exploring how the Kingsman Agency came into being during the dark days of WWI. Comparable to the supercharged Sherlock Holmes movies directed by old bugger Matthew Vaughan Guy Ritchie, it’s like Brideshead Revisited is meeting John Wick. Trashy and deliberately fun and provocative, The King’s Man does for spy movies what The Suicide Squad did for superheroes.
The 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, Earl or Lord of Oxford, worried by his British aristocratic compatriots smugly showing off their new invention: what is called a “concentration camp”. This is the first sign that The King’s Man has something to say about the aristocracy. And it’s not exactly subtle, delivering a scathing controversy against venal, power-hungry, power-hungry politicians across the world. In a cast of bravery as a scathing satire, the same actor (Tom Hollander) plays the German kaiser, the Tsar of Russia and the King of Great Britain, to emphasize how unthinkable global bloodshed has arisen from small family quarrels.
A deceased woman and 12 years later Oxford and her adult son Conrad (an angelic Harris Dickinson) are dispatched on a delicate mission to feel the Euro-noble Archduke Franz Ferdinand. World War I scholars know how it works. As the world is plunged into war, father and son embark on a quest across the world to prevent an evil conspiracy.
Although Kingsman started out as a comic book, this prequel story was concocted for this movie and is not directly adapted from any comics. Still, it feels more like an adaptation of a comic book issue series, as it’s split into such an episodic structure. It doesn’t do much for the film’s overall cohesion, especially when the most memorable threat is sent early and the film struggles to fill the void. But it also rushes at such a breathtaking pace, filled with a nervous bombardment of flashbacks and inserts, that you barely have time to notice it.
Visual flourishes are everywhere, like a match cut between huge mustaches on either side of the world, a dizzying zoom to a torpedo tube or a devastating time-lapse shot showing a bombed pastoral countryside in a muddy hell cut into trenches. in a few moments. As you would expect from this series, the fights are intricately choreographed and wacky exhilarating. Among the actors, Rhys ifans in particular gives him his throat full like a wild Rasputin. But all is not fun: There is an initially nightmarish silent knife fight that provides a gruesome counterpoint to the other cheerful punches.
The credits mention a history advisor and a facial hair supervisor, which says a lot about the historical priorities of this film. The adventure is filled with recognizable characters and tropes from a childhood spent devouring the adventures of another age, like Biggles or The Thirty-Nine Steps. The kind of heartbreaking threads that heroes smash fans into and villains are ‘saturins’, appearing from the shadows in Homburg hats as a dark brain sitting on top of a mountain leads a satanic council of crude national stereotypes . They don’t do them like that anymore, and for good reason. Problem is, a lovingly recreated pastiche of these outdated and questionable attitudes only repeats those attitudes unless there is also a clear effort to skewer, undermine, and reject them. For example, it is important to look at who lives, who dies, who wins and how they do it. Some filmmakers seem to think that it is enough to play fair and believe that a modern audience sees attitudes outdated for what they are. But it is an abdication of artistic responsibility.
The King’s Man offers enough sneaky nods to signal that he knows what he’s doing playing around with those dodgy old tropes. But usually this comes in the form of doing Gemma Arterton pop up and do something hilarious and badass, only to sideline her again. The hero is motivated by the death of a woman, and there’s a long streak built around the heroes panicking that they can be seduced into having sex with – gasp! — a man.
Considering how The King’s Man proclaims his focal point – politicians are all bastards – he’s also oddly confused in his beliefs. Instead of rejecting the horribly unequal privilege of the aristocracy, the film worships Ralph Fiennes’s noble saint even when casually takes the kind of one-sided violent action that we’re seemingly meant to despise in villains.
As in previous Kingsman films, instead of true equality, the luckiest working class characters are offered the attributes of the aristocracy. In this film, the Kingsman spy ring begins as a network of servants. Some of these characters have names (a pretty decent indicator of whether a movie values ââa character), but a lot of regular people get overlooked. The Russian Revolution, for example, is not presented as a workers’ movement but as a murderous mob. And the basic 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 who work there. . King Arthur’s table may be round, but not everyone has a place.
You could say I read too much in a movie that also features Rasputin dancing against a pantless spy, but this whole series is explicitly grounded in such class questions. Still, while there are some aspects that don’t stand up to scrutiny, I have to say I was amused as he freaked out from moment to moment. Bold and bizarre, The King’s Man is rarely boring.
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