Released in 2015, Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, based on the comic book series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, was a refreshing blast of raucous madcap action, near-the-knuckle humour and lunatic four-colour spectacle. The film reminded audiences what they had been missing since James Bond had decided to get all angsty and poker-faced. Kingman: The Secret Service was fun. The 2017 sequel The Golden Circle was a bit more problematic; here Vaughn dialled everything up to hysteria mode and delivered a film that was far too smug and pleased with itself (with no real justification) and decided that following the success of the first film it could do whatever the hell it liked, including turning Sir Elton John into an acrobatic martial arts killing machine. Few were impressed and whilst the film performed well at the box office, Vaughn took a few lumps from those who felt that the series had become a little too queasily lairy and had drowned its initial cheeky charm in a sea of questionable sleaze and lowest-common-denominator lad's mag shenanigans. Whether by accident or design though, it seems as if Vaughn has learned his lesson – to some extent – in this third entry in the franchise, a prequel that takes us back to the early 1900s and presents a witty, wildly imaginative, and thrilling revisionist account of the events leading up to and during the horrors of the First World War without a bum joke in sight.
The King’s Man rather schizophrenically attempts to touch as many dramatic bases as it can and it gets away with it. It nods at British colonialism without especially offering any commentary on it, it reminds us of the grim and unutterable horror of the war (scenes set in the trenches that sit slightly at odds with the comic book style elsewhere) and it gives us, in Ralph Fiennes, the best James Bond we never had as he indulges in fisticuffs and swordplay with Rasputin the Mad Monk and, later, the lunatic criminal mastermind the Shepherd who is determined to bring the world to its knees. It’s a big, barmy concoction that probably shouldn’t work and yet it does, sometimes quite magnificently. In 1902, the Duke of Oxford (Fiennes), having turned his back on military service, is working for the Red Cross and he and his family are delivering supplies to a concentration camp in the Boer War. A tragedy forces him to make a vow to protect his young son Conrad but twelve years later, Conrad (Harris Dickinson) is on the verge of manhood and is keen to spread his wings. His father, meanwhile, is ferociously cossetting the lad whilst covertly protecting the interests of the British Empire in the shadow of the looming Great War with the help of Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), two of his servants. The film dances around the edges of real history when Oxford and Conrad are present when the rebel Gavrilo Pricip (Joel Basman) assassinates the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, effectively lighting the fuse on World War 1. Behind the scenes, though, is the manipulative Shepherd, hidden away with his goats high on a remote hilltop and dispatching his agents, including Rasputin and Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), to ensure that the world is plunged into chaos.
The beautifully-realised historical setting is a refreshing change from the glib modernism of the previous two entries in the series and it has encouraged Vaughn to reign in his baser tendencies to create an intriguing, absorbing, well-crafted adventure story that offers real excitement, tragedy, emotional drama, and characters who are well-rounded and believable that we can actually believe and invest in. The action scenes pulsate, of course, but they’re less front-and-centre here than usual and the emphasis is clearly on character and relationships and the occasional drift back into the extremes of the first two films never leads you to wish that Vaughn would stop when he’s pushed a good thing just that bit too far. Rhys Ifans is, however, quite extraordinary as Rasputin and the sequence where he fights Conrad, Oxford, and Shola at his Christmas party is very nearly the equal of any of the more outrageous scenes from the earlier films and is the only moment when it looks as if the film might tip into parody.
In the end, though, The King’s Man is a wonderful, surprising triumph, its climax leading to the proper formation of Oxford’s Kingsman Organisation itself and the enticing mid-credits promise of a sequel that poor box office might well have put paid to. But to he honest, we’d rather see more of this iteration of the Kingsman than another loud and laddish outing for Taron Egerton’s Eggsy and crew. It’s a right royal treat guaranteed to blow those winter blues away.
The King's Man is streaming on Disney+ and on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD from February 21st.