I remember the cold winter night I spent heading to my local theater in 2015, not sure of what to expect from Kingsman: The Secret Service. The trailers promised a second coming of the spy genre, with rising star Taron Egerton and established gentleman Colin Firth dubbed the finest leading men since James Bond. What I found on the screen felt almost exactly as I’d hoped. A confident, stylish, pulse-pounding two hours that knew exactly what they wanted the audience to feel. I left the theater elated, already hoping that a new film in the series would soon be on the way. Walking out of my screening for the franchise prequel The King’s Man, I did not feel the same way.
Perhaps their biggest draw, the Kingsman films feature a handful of distinctive trademarks to let you know what kind of movie you’re watching. The most important of these, undoubtedly the most talked about, are the zany, over-the-top action sequences laced throughout each entry. These wild kerfuffles typically involve brutal takedowns, carefully placed camera work and tight choreography. One opponent is always a well-dressed protagonist, while the other is usually the film’s second modus operandi — the totally corny villain. Whether it be the story’s big bad, or one of their overly skilled henchmen, the evildoers of Kingsmen are never down to Earth. This works because the movies never want you to believe the story is taking place in a world any less silly than their silliest character.
The major problem with The King’s Man is that it fails to commit to the bit in the same way as its exaggerated predecessors. It has all of the aforementioned traits without any of the devotion to a bigger, romp-filled world. The movie is admittedly charming when it wants to have fun with itself, but it never lingers in the amusement long enough for the camp to settle. On the other side of the coin, there’s an attempt at an uncharacteristic tear-jerker plot point that ultimately crumbles under the weight of tonal shifts. Parts of the film are very serious, and there are a handful of real-world problems the script seems it wants to tackle. It occasionally gets the point across, but its eventual need to dip back into visual sex jokes and goofball one-liners undercuts the pacing of any emotional impact. At a certain point, the back-and-forth between drama and genre can become exhausting.
As for the cast, there is no one having more fun than Rhys Ifans. The Welsh actor’s take on the iconic Russian mystic Gregori Rasputin is, without question, one of the most absurdly mesmerizing performances of the year. It almost feels strange that Ifans is the man behind all that false hair and makeup, considering most moviegoers are probably used to seeing him in more subdued roles. As the secondary villain, his theatrical efforts ensure that the film’s mysterious, heavily accented, cheeseball main antagonist is overshadowed by a country mile. The underrated Tom Hollander also has a seemingly good time portraying all three major European/North Asian world leaders involved in the First World War, as part of the production’s aforementioned camp. Newcomer Harris Dickinson and industry vet Ralph Fiennes do their jobs fine, though they fail to live up to the chemistry of previous stars Firth and Egerton. The rest of the supporting cast, like Djimon Hounsou and Gemma Arterton, get by on likability alone, but none of them are given too much to work with before the movie ends.
By the time the credits roll, The King’s Man provides fans with a serviceable prequel, a few more enjoyable moments of combat, and a handful of mostly satisfying answers about the origins of Kingsmen. The issue is that’s really all it has to offer. It’s missing that certain “je ne sais quoi” that helped push the other two Kingsmen up out of the pack. While room is left for director Matthew Vaughn, or a worthy replacement, to continue the prequel story, it feels like maybe 20th Century Studios ought to let this one lie and hope the long-gestating Kingsmen 3 has a better result.