“Kingsman: The Secret Service” made it clear back in 2014 that Matthew Vaughn really wanted to make a James Bond movie, preferably one from the more ludicrously conceived era when 007 went to space. Interestingly, “The King’s Man” is a more traditional spy movie for most of its running time, focusing on intrigue and espionage more than gadgets and explosions. It also centers a man who clearly could have been Bond in an alternate universe, Ralph Fiennes, an actor who always gives his all, even when a film doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
Fiennes plays Orlando Oxford, the man who would found the covert operation that centered the first two films, and, apparently, play a major role in several events connected to World War I. The Duke of Oxford is an important ally of King George (Tom Hollander, who also plays Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas in an admittedly fun casting choice) in the days when it appears violent conflict is inevitable. Oxford basically starts his own spy network with the help of Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), two geniuses who also happen to be servants at his estate, able to hide in plain sight as so many privileged white men ignore them. Yes, an interesting idea, but “The King’s Man” does almost nothing with it, although Hounsou and Arterton are two of the film’s strengths (give them an action-driven spin-off).
Meanwhile, a villain who’s seen only from behind for almost two hours of the film’s running time schemes to plunge the world into chaos with the help of his own network of spies, including Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) himself. As the war becomes bloodier, Oxford struggles to keep his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from the front line, preaching pacifism and protection whenever possible. And yet the movie keeps pushing back against that until it almost seems to suggest that the horrors of this world will make even the most upstanding gentlemen into killing machines. Britain, f*ck yeah!
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