I love Matthew Vaughn. It makes perfect sense that Vaughn first made his name producing movies like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch for Guy Ritchie as his directorial career has always seemed like a fun house version of his former collaborator. They share a taste for a sort of hypermasculine storytelling aesthetic with a pleasantly crass, if somewhat outmoded, sense of humor. While Ritchie is drawn to thugs and gangsters, Vaughn seems very content to delve deep into stories more absurd.
His first film, Layer Cake, is his most Ritchie-esque starring a young Daniel Craig (Skyfall, Knives Out) as a cocaine dealer trying to go legit. It’s one of those special films that seems to kick off the career of an entire generation of actors – young versions of Tom Hardy (Inception, Venom: Let There Be Carnage), Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water, Happy-Go-Lucky), Sienna Miller (American Woman, Foxcatcher), Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak), and Ben Whishaw (No Time to Die, Cloud Atlas) all make appearances. It’s an effectively thrilling little crime gem, but it does not yet have the more distinct visual palette that Vaughn’s work would develop.
Next Vaughn would move into genre work with the effectively joyous fantasy gem Stardust. The story showed a real deft touch at telling absurd stories in a mainstream story. Kick-Ass, an ultraviolent tongue-in-cheek hard R comic book based Stardust follow-up, is a big influence on later R rated superhero movies like Deadpool and, again, gave us a the breakout appearances for some now famous performers like Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy, Tenet) and Chloe Grace Moretz (Mother/Android, Let Me In). Big franchise fair was next off his early career genre success as Vaughn took over the stagnant X-Men franchise. After two horrendous installments (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the series was teetering on the edge of irrelevance. Vaughn took the aesthetics of a classic Connery James Bond movie and re-envisioned Professor X and Magneto as 60s era charmers. I view it as one of the franchise’s most successful entrants.
Which brings us to the Kingsman franchise. Mark Millar wrote the underlying story – his violent takes on superheroics have been immensely influential on modern superhero movies. Wanted, Kick-Ass, Captain America: Civil War, and Logan are all inspired by Millar’s work. In 2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Vaughn appeared to find the perfect mix of 60s alpha cool and comic book absurdity. Spectacularly violent shootouts and sword legged henchwomen somehow fit perfectly into a world whose ethos is defined as “Manners Maketh Man.” The first film was a delirious burst of hilarious joy. As James Bond moved into the realm of self-seriousness, the first Kingsman happily positioned itself as A View to a Kill with razor sharp teeth. The second film delves a bit too far into the absurd – I love Elton John but I could do without his deployment as an action hero. Nevertheless, it was still an exuberantly dopey and fantastically violent spy adventure.
Thus brings The King’s Man, a prequel to the prior Kingsman films, which shifts the action a century prior to the dawn of the first World War. Gone are Taron Egerton (Rocketman, Sing) and Colin Firth (Love Actually, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) replaced by the more dour presences of Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats, The Souvenir Part II) and Ralph Fiennes (the Harry Potter series, In Bruges). The first two Kingsman films both set their tones with ridiculous action scenes, but this prequel sets the scene with a melodramatic tragedy. From the jump, Vaughn is preparing his audience for something a bit more serious than the prior films. Unfortunately, this choice leaves the entire preceding cold and less mirthful than its predecessors. Kingsman hums as Matthew Vaughn’s version of James Bond… it sputters as his version of 1917.
The King’s Man isn’t a bad film. The action remains massively over-the-top including a ridiculous team knife fight in the midst of No Man’s Land, but with stakes that feel so much heavier too much of the joy is lost. An action movie is simply not as fun when the stakes are the (real) death of millions in The Great War as opposed to the whims of a McDonald’s scarfing Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Captain America: Winter Soldier) or a vaguely cannibalistic Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights, The Kids Are All Right). There’s a near constant tension that feels on display here between a “true” Kingsman movie and what I suspect might be Vaughn’s version of 1917. On the one hand we have Rhys Ifans (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Notting Hill) giving a Dracula-esque performance as a twirling sword-wielding Grigori Rasputin, but on the other we have extremely self-serious tensions of duty vs safety and what feels like an honest effort to grapple with how and when the sacrifice of young men to war is “worth” the price.
The action, at least, remains a strong suit. Vaughn remains a compelling and unique visual stylist who makes fisticuffs and gunplay eye-catchingly visceral. From mountain side battles to extended sword fights interspersed with balletic spins, there’s a real variety to the film’s frequent action beats. Vaughn manages to make Fiennes seem like a credible man of action. The supporting cast, including Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, The Disappearance of Alice Creed), Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond, In America), and Daniel Bruhl (Rush, Disney+’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier), is well cast but all seem to be struggling with the tonal balance between Bond spoof camp and serious war film. The film is even rife with a few genuinely surprising twists, and the last act set-up for potential future King’s Man films seems like a story that might be a lot of fun. It’s just too bad this entry has lost the exuberance of the first two franchise entries…
The King’s Man is in theaters now.