“The King’s Man”: Come for the wacky revisionist story, but stay for Rasputin, the shelling



“The King’s Man” – an “origin story” for the previous two films in the “Kingsman” series – is a bit of a fun, revisionist WWI story told in a nimble cartoon style. Sometimes it may be too funny; Tom Hollander’s sneering Kaiser Wilhelm is like something sneaked into Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker’s spy parody, “Top Secret!” And then there’s Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) which is deliciously over the top, albeit quite dramatically.

That’s not to say the film, directed and co-written by Matthew Vaughn, who helmed the previous two entries, isn’t without serious moments. The horrors of the battlefields of World War I are vividly illustrated and the film certainly tries to respect the lives lost and which could have been saved during the Great War. But while this movie provides lessons in privilege and responsibility, as well as character reputation – the former is what others think you are, the latter is who you are – “The King’s Man” really wants to present as many bloated fight scenes as possible, and some of the action scenes are fantastic.

But first a little history. “The King’s Man” opens in 1902, South Africa, where tragedy befalls Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) and his young son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson). The episode prompts Orlando to protect his only child who, 12 years later, insists on serving in the war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (Ron Cook). But Orlando is a gentle man, a pacifist, and cannot allow his son to see the battle, even when he is of enlistment age.

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The film pits the three cousins, King George of England (Tom Hollander), Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany (Tom Hollander) and Tsar Nicholas of Russia (Tom Hollander). However, it really is a group of villains, led by a mysterious Scotsman, who are pulling the strings. One of the thief’s henchmen is the assassin of Archduke Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman). Another is Rasputin, who has Tsar Nicholas under his spell.

Vaughn provides a glossy historical fiction that places Orlando and Conrad in the car when the Archduke and his wife, Sophie (Barbara Drennan) are gunned down. It also involves the Oxfords going to a Christmas party for Rasputin, who has a taste for sweet cakes and sweet boys. (Homophobia here is creaking, but so is Rasputin). Orlando’s plan is for Conrad to be the bait for Rasputin to eat a poisoned cake. Yet the film twists this, so much so that Orlando is in a private room with Rasputin, his pants off, and the Russian mystic trying to heal the injured Orlando, getting incredibly close to his manhood. It’s a sight to see because Ifans goes wild – not just then, but with the action that comes after. Suffice it to say, Rasputin dances like a whirling dervish, fights all comers and, as legend has it, is immune from most attacks on his life. It’s an exciting streak and the climax of “The King’s Man”.

Alas, the movie is over an hour old when that part is over, and the movie gets slow as Conrad asserts his independence and goes to war against his father’s will. This part of the movie sets up the climax, but the most interesting part doesn’t involve Conrad’s experiences dodging bullets on the battlefield, but Polly (Gemma Arterton), Orlando’s loyal assistant, breaking up coded messages from Germany using a domestic network. This kind of silent subversive espionage is fun, but a subplot about Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner) seducing President Woodrow Wilson (Ian Kelly) into blackmail – is silly. Still, he allows Orlando, Polly, and Orlando’s right-hand man Shola (Djimon Hounsou) to recover cinematic evidence of Wilson’s summons to the Scottish lair where adorable goats are raised to make the the softest and rarest cashmere.

“The King’s Man” starts to get far-fetched and exhausting at this point, then it includes a death-defying airplane adventure and a mountaineering streak that leads to the final showdown with the obvious and infamous villain. Vaughn tries to go to extremes with these scenes, but they only scream CGI. Such a visual gadget is best used earlier in the movie, when a character on a ship is killed by a torpedo from a nearby submarine. Vaughn uses a clever follow-up plan to show what will happen right before it happens. When it comes to the different fight scenes, the ones involving gunshots seem telegraphed while the sword fight sequences are much more exciting and believable.

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While the film isn’t meant to be an actor’s showcase, Ralph Fiennes does his role justice, delivering an air of sophistication that grounds the film on chivalry. (It is not for nothing that the characters have code names that derive from the legend of King Arthur). Gemma Arterton is brave as Polly, who is smarter than most men, but Djimon Hounsou is underserved as Magic Black Man. (Its code name, of course, is Merlin). Harris Dickinson, who is usually magnetic to the screen, strangely fails to make a big impression here. His role may be a note, but he should have a little more sparkle. On the other hand, Rhys Ifans gives an imposing performance, and not only because his Rasputin is an imposing figure. Ifans chews the landscape like Rasputin chews the poisoned cake, in very big bites, dropping the crumbs as best they can. In support, Tom Hollander seems to enjoy playing three great European leaders, even though he is the best at playing King George.

“The King’s Man” is an idiot, but that’s part of what makes it a good time. It keeps its promises, even if it does not go entirely as planned.

“The King’s Man” is in theaters from Wednesday, December 22. Watch a trailer below, via YouTube:

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