The King’s Man

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Story by Matthew Vaughn

Screenplay by Matthew Vaughn & Karl Gajdusek, based on The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance

Trailer courtesy of 20th Century Studios/MARV Studios. Used with permission.

Do you ever get a sense of déjà vu when watching a film? A particular swagger, a snigger, a sneer? As the race toward Hollywood’s IP-infatuated oblivion marches ever forward, we are gifted with Matthew Vaughn’s “The King’s Man” this Christmas.

Would a lump of coal better suffice?

Not necessarily. See, “The King’s Man” serves as a prequel to the franchise’s infinitely superior “Kingsman: Secret Service” from 2014 and its infinitely inferior sequel, 2017’s “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” As a prequel, it does a serviceable job of setting up the origins of Kingsman, the independent British spy agency. As an origin story, “The King’s Man” is unbalanced with solid characters and unique identity.

An eclectic ensemble sets the story’s pace. Ralph Fiennes as Orlando Oxford, a man of great integrity, his son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson), his attentive assistant, Polly Watkins (Gemma Arterton), and his faithful servant, Shola (Djimon Hounsou), are at his side. Together, they form a tight quad.

The script by Vaughn and co-screenwriter Karl Gajdsek takes liberties from history, circa 1906 – 1918. Orlando acts the middleman, trying to stop a trio of tyrants from their evil-doing ways; Tom Hollander pulls triple duty quite effectively, and the story groups his characters into their respective regimes.

The feeling of déjà vu comes from Fiennes’ performance, a sense of his John Steed from Jeremiah Chechik’s “The Avengers” from 1998. No, don’t worry – “The King’s Man” is not the lump of coal that “The Avengers” is known to be (I disagree with it being the worst movie in the world, but who am I to argue?) It’s the John Steed-esque costume that comes into play as Orlando struts his stuff down Saville Row while a battle of wits rages on with Conrad, who wants to do his part in the effort. The film explores the interpersonal relationship between father and son, who are both “more than meets the eye.”

Characters, both primary and incidental, are where “The King’s Man” does its job. Fiennes is the right man, as are Arterton and Hounsou. All three are seen having fun on the screen, and they are the film’s heart and soul. Gone is the streetwise attitude, replaced with a classicism that befits the time the story is set in; a sense of decorum with a wry, upturned lip, or a gleam in the eye: “got ya!” Matthew Goode has a minor role in the film as Charles Dance’s aide-de-camp. One might say his role is more than pure window dressing (a lousy joke regarding the hallmark tailor shop comes to mind.)  Charles Dance puffs his chest up in that military way that he is known for and lends the production a bit of gravitas, as does Daniel Brühl in his staid way. I could probably watch Brühl paint a fresco and not be disappointed; he has a way of being present without distracting from the other actors or elements in a scene.

Alas, they must put their differences aside to thwart the nefariousness that is Rhys Ifans’ Grigori Rasputin, who is every bit the mystic and self-proclaimed holy man, the real-life figure became. Ifans is a brute with interesting tendencies, which is where Dickinson shines. From a staging perspective, Vaughn and cinematographer Ben Davis amp up the action with an operatic number featuring Ifans and Fiennes, the best moment in the film is the battle between Rasputin and Orlando. Vaughn set the scene to beautiful use of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” matching the balletic movements of Rasputin and Oxford. It reminded me of the use of “Por Una Cabeza” in the early tango scenes from “True Lies.” Even when Ifans is not match-moving Fiennes, his lumbering hulk of a presence is full of dark comedic moments; this Rasputin’s stature or existence is not Lilliputian. He aims to maim and destroy whatever gets in his way. Reminds me of this guy with a metal overbite.

Vaughn has said he wanted to return to classic epics, such as “Lawrence of Arabia.” The intent is there, but Villeneuve succeeded with “Dune” earlier this year, whereas “The King’s Man” has the class of “Lawrence” but misses on the epic-level storytelling, favoring the characters. The biggest challenge with “The King’s Man” is that two editors were at the helm,  as the first half dithers a bit where backstory and plot details are unfolded. Despite the editing in the first half, the editors do a yeoman’s work with an exceptionally shot, classic Bond set-up complete with a Blofeld-esque villain. “The King’s Man” does look slick.

The film’s second half is where the pacing picks up its feet. A sense of urgency tightens our key characters once our objective is targeted, something fans from the “Kingsman” series have come to appreciate.

“The King’s Man” has room left in the tank for a future entry into the series. I’m not necessarily advocating for more, but the characters that populate the story are the best piece of the film, along with the choreography and historical points the tale touches. Yes, it is revisionist, but what movie worth its salt, isn’t revisionist in some way?

Even as I’m winding down this review, there’s something charming about the slickness of “The King’s Man,” hitting cinemas on December 22nd (stay through the credits). Perhaps it is that swagger or that sneer. Maybe, Vaughn found the right character elements to tell this story. It is uneven in its storytelling, cheeky in what it portends. If it is the action you seek, “The King’s Man” is a diamond in the rough worth checking out.

A very small diamond in that rough. NUTCRACKER!

R, 131 minutes, 20th Century Studios/MARV Studios