‘The King’s Man’ seeks to expand the spy franchise, but this prequel just might end it

‘The King’s Man’ seeks to expand the spy franchise, but this prequel just might end it
Peter Mountain/Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

“The King’s Man” is a prequel to the “Kingsman” movies, but its closest spiritual kin would be “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” another film based on a graphic novel that brought the superhero/spy genre into an earlier era and mostly flubbed the migration process. Fun in places, this World War I era story was designed to expand the franchise but appears just as likely to end it.

Although the original players haven’t been born yet, the intriguing prospect of Ralph Fiennes portraying the Duke of Oxford, the founder of the super-secret service that defends the U.K. and world from existential threats, sounded inviting, particularly with the war as a backdrop. The execution, alas, falls short of the possibilities.

Insanely rich, Oxford is a cross between James Bond and Batman, if reluctant to enter this perilous role when the story begins thanks to a pledge to his late wife regarding their now on-the-cusp-of-manhood son (Harris Dickinson, the prince in the “Maleficent” sequel).

As constructed, Matthew Vaughn’s third time in the director’s chair wildly swings from alternate history to elite spy team to “1917” with its gritty view of trench warfare, peppered by the kinetic action and explicit violence that distinguished the first movie and couldn’t salvage the second.

Fiennes’ Duke has the ear of the King (Tom Hollander, performing triple duty by also playing the monarch’s royal cousins in Russia and Germany), as he seeks to bring the war to an end. Oxford operates with his loyal allies Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), drawing on a network of servants and domestics situated adjacent to power and thus privy to their innermost secrets.

Still, “The King’s Man” holds its own secrets close to the vest a little too long, including the identity of its shadowy Blofeld-esque villain, while going long stretches without a whole lot happening. When the action does kick in it falls between grittier realism and the hyper-stylized flourishes that distinguished the earlier movies, such as a brutal showdown with Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), whose role in manipulating the Russian tsar, in this reality, ties into a larger and more nefarious plot.

Fiennes, it’s worth noting, played a gentleman spy before in the ill-considered transfer of the British series “The Avengers” to the big screen, and for better and mostly worse, “King’s Man” shares some of those attributes.

To be fair, origin stories tend to be a bit messy, and this one clearly behaves as if it’s interested in setting the table for more, as evidenced by a Marvel-style closing-credit scene. But in shifting “Kingsman’s” basic template onto this different time frame, Vaughn has essentially left Fiennes and his dapper colleagues all dressed up with nowhere to go.

“The King’s Man” premieres Dec. 22 in US theaters. It’s rated R.

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