Review: “The King’s Man”—Far from Royalty Yet Still Worth the High

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, “The King’s Man” is a prequel to the blockbuster Kingsman franchise set during World War I. The movie was released on December 22, 2021 and, though technically a spy-comedy film, grapples with more historical and emotional themes. With the Duke Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) and his ensemble meddling with world politics, fighting on the frontlines, and trying to end World War One—Vaughn tells a flawed but ultimately exhilarating story of how the Great War led to the Kingsman secret service organization. Caution: spoilers ahead.

With its invigorating extravagance and self-aware insanity, “The King’s Man” excels in its intense fight choreography and enthralling action. One scene stands above the rest as a culmination of the movie’s best elements: Rasputin (Rhys Infans) fighting the Kingsman main cast. The legendary Russian starts by performing a healing ritual on Duke Orlando’s leg, and then proceeds to nearly drown the man before the Duke’s son, Conrad Oxford (Harris Dickinson), and their companion, Shola (Djimon Hounsou) crash through the palace’s golden doors. What follows is over five minutes of spinning, dancing, kicking, and stabbing that felt like pure insanity, like what I imagine a bottle of vodka would do, with the sarcastic sharpshooter Polly (Gemma Arterton) joining in at the end with a snarky little bang; moments like these are what makes “The King’s Man” addictive.

However, calling “The King’s Man” a masterpiece would be downright blasphemous. From dispensable female characters to implausible resolutions, the writing is simply careless. In fact, the opening scene immediately establishes how unconcerned this film is: the Duke’s wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) is shot in the most stereotypical example of fridging—killing a loved one, almost always a woman, to motivate the hero—imaginable. She may as well be named “Inciting Incident.” The writers also halfheartedly shove Polly and Duke together, then rush her off-screen—by the way, she’s the only woman with an actual role in the entire film. There are also moments of pure ridiculousness, like when Conrad crawls out onto the battlefield at midnight and stays there until the sun rises only the audience’s amusement of watching bombs rain down as Conrad races to the trenches. Then, when the Duke hangs on a cliff’s edge, seconds away from a crunchy death, a goat pulls him up, then immediately befriends him. The same goat stabs his horn into our Big Bad Guy—a long-forgotten Major Morton (Matthew Goode)—just as Morton moves to push the Duke off of that same edge. Such thoughtlessness makes the originally compelling plot line seem more like the unfinished punchline to a half-hearted attempt at a joke.

Yet, the plot holes (goat or non-goat related) do not affect the film as much as you’d think. Despite them, “The King’s Man” is still masterfully entertaining.

The action scenes are dazzlingly constructed. The camera sweeps back and forth, up and down, and the movements of the actors feel like a dance. There is a skillful meticulousness in the direction and angles, like when we inhabit a first-person perspective and the enemy begins furiously stabbing at “us,” or when the characters are rapidly spinning in circles so we inhabit a bird’s eye perspective to appreciate the dizzying movements. I jumped when Polly landed a bullet square in Rasputin’s forehead; I winced as Conrad thrust his knife into the enemy’s throat. There’s a rhythmic adrenaline to the way we follow these fights, flinching when they punch and jolting when they fall.

Even in the midst of this lawless storyline, the characters still retain a sense of nuance and humanity. There was a motherly tone to the way Polly baked cake for Conrad, a loyalty in the friendship between Shola and the Duke—the cast was much more than just action and charm. The film’s characterization was generally decent enough to not hinder the actors, and the actors in turn spectacularly embodied their roles. Arterton’s Polly, for example, carries herself with a confident precision sharply defined by each smug smile and witty one-liner. There were instances where she was written and portrayed in a genuine and relatable way.   

Some moments—instantly fridged wives and bafflingly intelligent goats—left me rolling my eyes. The moviemakers’ hand is heavy in the cinematography, dialogue, and storyline—yet that is also part of its charm. Vaughn knew what his audience expected, so this movie embraces all things inane and insanely silly. As I watched, I laughed, chuckled, wheezed, and even exhaled through my nose. At the end of two hours, what I choose to remember is the heady, outrageous fun of it all. 

4.5 out of 5 stars—perhaps a bit of an over-evaluation, but minor self-indulgence on a dopamine high like this? Justified.