A few months ago, I was a guest on "The Popcorn Auteur" podcast, and we discussed director Matthew Vaughn. While we all agreed that his style and visual flare are distinctive enough to call him an auteur, not every one of his films was a hit with the hosts. I on the other hand, can safely say I have not been let down by a Matthew Vaughn film yet, and that winning streak continues with this third entry into the "Kingsman" cinema universe. On the Sunday podcast, my colleague James Wilson was not particularly forthcoming with his dislike of the film, maybe to spare my feelings, but I was not worried because I have faith in Vaughn and this time he did something else that pleased me, he surprised me.
"The King's Man" does have some of the outlandish action scenes that Vaughn is noted for, we will discuss those in a moment. Although ostensibly the genesis of the Kingsmen franchise, this film has several elements that are clearly different from the other films. To begin with, it focuses on a real conflict, not something invented by the authors. Vaugh and his collaborators do graft on a subplot that suggests that WWI was the result of manipulation by a secret cabal, much like SPECTRE, but masterminded by a shadowy figure referred to by acolytes as "The Shepard". Historic figures like Mata Hari and Rasputin are then crossbred with the group to accomplish the machinations of the organization and bring the powers of Russia, Germany and Great Britain into conflict with one another. This retconning of history is fun because actual historical incidents and events are mixed with the fantasy of the film to create an interesting story. I hope that young people don't fall for the idea that Woodrow Wilson was blackmailed as a reason for delaying U.S. entry into the war, that would be too easy an excuse for his behaviors.
Another way that the film feels different is the war context itself. The fight wit Rasputin is entertaining nonsense, but the realities of the battlefield in WWI make this film sometimes feel like an outtake from "1917" and that switch in tone is maybe the hardest element of the film to reconcile. As a drama segment it works well on it's own but it does feel like a betrayal of the fun the film is trying to have with the outlandish premise that they have created. Tarantino was able to get away with this because the whole plot of "Inglorious Basterds" was at odds with reality. I will say with a slight warning of a **spoiler**, there is a plot twist that is wholly consistent with the first movie and it changes the direction of the story in a striking moment.
The fight sequences are the things that distinguish Vaughn's films from others of his ilk. They are manically choregraphed and filmed in creative ways. The perspective in the battle with Rasputin for instance, changes on the moment of contact and then momentum. The fighters look like ballet dancers twisting in the air but with sudden changes in orientation that alter their strategic advantage moment to moment. In the sword fight at the climax of the film. the villain is revealed and a battle with our main hero takes place. There is an amazing shot of the crossed swords that is technically complicated and extremely beautiful, it lasts just a second but it also reflects the care that goes in to composing the fight scenes in a Vaughn film.
Ralph Fiennes as Lord Orlando Oxford, adds dignity to the whole enterprise while also showing how he might have been a good choice for Bond back when Daniel Craig took over. His aristocratic air may have handicapped him in that choice but works perfectly in this context. Rhys Ifans plays Rasputin in a role that is really an extended cameo rather than a starring part, but he takes full advantage of the weird combination of mystic and barbarian, to outlandish effect. He has a couple of moments with Fiennes that are truly odd and hilarious at the same time. I am sure that his fighting skills are a combination of stunt work and CGI, but he nevertheless is the face of the character and one of the memorable things about the film. Daniel Brühl appears in a standard villain role as a parallel to Rasputin only in Germany. He is poised to come back if ever there is a continuation of the story as suggested by a mid-closing credits scene. Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance all do their parts to fill out the cast of the Kingsmen Service in one fashion or another. Tom Hollander gets to play multiple parts and that is fun for reasons that you will see when you watch the film.
I suppose I can understand why some are not enthusiastic about the film. It is highly stylized and the tonal changes are often not very smooth. On the other hand, the clever twisting of history to tie into the conceit of the story is just delicious and you get the signature action scenes that Vaughn is noted for, so I feel no need to apologize for my opinion, it was a great time at the movies.