This article contains mild spoilers for The King’s Man.
It doesn’t matter what you thought of the previous Kingsman movies directed by Matthew Vaughn. Nor is it particularly important what you think of the new film’s trailers and overall concept about a goofy spy adventure set during World War I. Believe it or not, the one crucial thing you need to understand about The King’s Man is it has the most delightfully batshit fight scene you’ll see at the cinema this year. And that, dear reader, is worth the price of admission.
The sequence in question involves Ralph Fiennes’ dapper English Lord, Orlando Oxford, his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson), a trusted valet they call Shola (Djimon Hounsou), and perhaps most importantly Rhys Ifans as Grigori Rasputin. Ifans is an interesting character actor who’s done solid work in the margins for decades, including memorably as the schlubby roommate in Notting Hill. However, he’s not a performer I normally associate with martial arts—or Russian spiritualism for that matter. Yet he fiendishly hams it up at both when he portrays the historical figure of Rasputin—a turn of the century holy man who kept the Tsar of Russia under his thrall.
Yes, there were those, including the Russian royal family, who believed Rasputin was a wizard with magical powers. But in Vaughn’s giddy Christmas Eve sequence of The King’s Man, he’s portrayed with maximum boorishness and such excessive vulgarity by Ifans that he leaves all pretenses of good taste behind, coming across like a neolithic swinger determined to get either Fiennes or his son into his bed. And when that fails, he settles for showing off high-kicking Cossack dance moves. The ensuing chaos blurs the line between ballet and martial arts as the Russian lech crosses swords with all three Brits, including a disrobed Fiennes, as Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” plays and Christmas decorations get decimated.
It’s absolute madness that is difficult to put into words other than to acknowledge it measures up to the excessive glee Vaughn and Brad Allan, the stunt coordinator/second unit director on all three Kingsman movies, instilled in the first Kingsman’s iconic action sequence where Colin Firth wiped out an entire church of Southern bigots, or the gonzo joy they staged in the Hit-Girl fight scenes in Kick-Ass more than a decade ago. Vaughn very much appears to be a filmmaker who never outgrew the thrill of smashing his action figures against one another. Yet, unlike so many other filmmakers of similar boyish interests, he went on to study the craft of visual storytelling and production design in detail.
In other words, as with Vaughn’s other best action set-pieces, the real crackerjack moments in The King’s Man involve dynamic stunt work and camera blocking that thrill by largely avoiding the crutch of CGI noise (although there are digital effects here too). The scenes also act as an unintended but lovely wake for the late Allan, the stunt coordinator who passed away earlier this year. His recent credits also include Shang-Chi and Wonder Woman, but it’s with Vaughn and his last credited film as stunt coordinator that you get the real sense of the tremendous talent that was lost.
These elements, plus the typical cheeky civility one associates with the Kingsman movies, go a long way in overcoming the newer film’s actual obstacles, not least of which is the likelihood of it being able to attract an audience. Originally intended for release in late 2019 before the Disney-Fox merger, and then COVID, delayed it for over two years, the film arrives almost seven years after the charming first movie, and more than four years since the leaden and ultimately exhausting The Golden Circle sequel, which let all the air out of the franchise’s balloon. Now that it’s finally being pushed out during the same holiday season as Spider-Man and The Matrix Resurrections, it very much feels like Disney is casting this movie into the wilderness to die. Which is a bitter shame.
Admittedly, one could see why the Mouse House would be perplexed about what to do with the 20th Century Fox leftover. It’s happily crude at times, extravagantly violent, and all-around sardonic in its droll temperament. Which is to say it doesn’t play like a modern PG-13 superhero romp. Rather The King’s Man is the type of movie where a protagonist will name drop he’s buddies with Archduke Franz Ferdinand and say they should go visit him during his tour of Serbia. The next shot is of the heroes riding along with the doomed royal in a roofless automobile. If you know your world history, it’s a bold choice.
There are so many big choices like this that the movie is fairly top-heavy, especially early on as it tries to balance the central narrative about a father (Fiennes) who doesn’t want his son (Dickinson) to go off in the First World War with a broader plot about the many historical figures who let the world light itself on fire for four years. Some of those choices are clever, such as having Tom Hollander play all three major monarchs (and cousins) during the war—King George V of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia—which underlines the innate meaninglessness and interchangeability of monarchy. Others are a little more ham-fisted, such as the real reason it’s revealed American President Woodrow Wilson didn’t intervene earlier in the conflict.
All of it can make the movie appear somewhat overstuffed, even at 130 minutes, with the first act taking a particularly long time to get going as the groundwork is laid. This also leaves affable supporting actors like Hounsou’s veritable His Man Friday and Gemma Arterton as the Oxford estate’s plucky housekeeper-turned-spy, Polly, with relatively little to do.
Even so, unlike The Golden Circle’s script, Vaughn and his co-screenwriter Karl Gajdusek are able to keep all the balls in the air and even land them with a genuinely exciting and twisty finale which is taken straight out of The Guns of Navarone (or For Your Eyes Only for Bond fans). In fact, the movie has the extra meta-joke of working as a yet-more pointed critique of the modern Daniel Craig era of James Bond. Craig’s tenure as 007 just ended on a melancholic and largely tragic note. But here, Craig’s second M, Ralph Fiennes, gets to play a far more dashing and jovial superspy in a performance that gets back to the type of British Empire fantasy that first inspired Ian Fleming as a boy.
Indeed, at its heart, there is something very old-fashioned at work in this movie. The aesthetic is practically defiant with its antiquated “Rule, Britannia” notions when it’s revealed in the Kingsman universe that World War I was ignited due to a SPECTRE-like conspiracy intended to weaken His Majesty’s power and finally make the sun set on the British Empire.
In this way, the film is a love letter to a time when not serving in the war would earn you four white feathers, and servants knew their place (which often involved standing in front of the lord of the manor as a bullet is fired). It’s the kind of romanticized Britain that the Bond character was created to protect, and at least in the Kingsman movies, it’s never looked better defended than when a pantsless Ralph Fiennes attempts to disarm Rasputin on Christmas Eve.
The King’s Man opens in the U.S. on Dec. 22 and in the UK on Dec. 26.