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The King’s Man review – pulpy prequel suffers from near-fatal tonal whiplash

Matthew Vaughn takes the franchise back to World War I, but gets stuck in an awkward no man's land between silliness and sincerity

This has been a year of many conspiracy theories, but I’m not sure any of them can hold a candle to the silliness of The King’s Man’s central conceit: that World War I, the Russian Revolution, and all the great 20th century conflicts to follow were the work of one group in particular – the Scottish nationalists. It’s a delightfully silly premise in a film that is not quite silly enough to earn it, walking an awkward line between comic-book pulp and earnest war story to disappointing results.

A prequel to the first two Kingsman movies, The King’s Man sees series director Matthew Vaughn take the action back to the very foundation of the “Independent Intelligence Agency,” formed in response to the chaos of the First World War. What could have been a relatively clean and simple origin story, though, is swiftly muddied by the introduction of the evil Scotsman and his sinister cabal, so the first 40 minutes or so are almost entirely just plot and exposition, a painfully slow start to what should be a zippy romp.

Once we’re fully ensconced into the action, things do pick up though, as head of the Kingsman, deadly pacifist Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), and his soldierly son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) jaunt across Europe to meet some of the period’s most notorious figures. Their much-trailed fight against Rasputin (Rhys Ifans in one of the broadest performances in a career of very broad performances) is fun, playing nicely off of the infamous legends of the real Rasputin’s death and incorporating a lot of Russian ballet into the brutality.

Most of the action is in a similarly entertaining vein, not exactly weighty or “real,” but shot through with the comic-book flair that Vaughn is so good at translating to the screen; a lot of current Marvel and DC directors (Zack Snyder excepted) could take lessons. The trouble comes in the moments in between the fighting, where Vaughn absolutely cannot find what tone he is looking for. He’s on firm ground whenever things are tongue-in-cheek – a gentlemanly mass brawl in No Man’s Land or Tom Hollander playing all three of the royal cousins involved in the war or the truly ludicrous credits scene – but the serious stuff falls much flatter.

Attempts to truly reckon with the trauma of the trenches or the horrors of the Boer War concentration camps in flashbacks that establish Oxford’s pacifism feel unearned almost to the point of being offensive, as does the strange America-worship in a film about a war which they ducked for three years. Fiennes and Dickinson both do the best with what they have, but it seems as if they’re not always sure exactly what they’re supposed to be doing – Fiennes in particular has to inhabit two entirely different films due to the tonal whiplash.

If Vaughn had fully committed to the poor-taste pulpiness that defines the best scenes of The King’s Man, this could have been a hugely fun alt-history of The Great War. Yet, in his attempts to also have this obviously absurd franchise move into more serious fare, he sinks it, making it simultaneously too busy and too slow, with too little of the winking, grimy kick that made the original such a surprise hit.

The King's Man is now showing in UK cinemas.

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