When Kingsman: The Secret Service premiered in 2014, it was a sleeper hit. A wry, self-aware take on James Bond and the spy genre, it starred agent Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) as a disaffected young man recruited by a secret, independent spy agency secretly run out of a Saville Row tailor shop in London. The combination of flashy action sequences, dapper fashions and an oh-so-British agency culture added up to one of the better spy films of the year. Then a few years later the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle came out and lacked some of the charm and wit of the original, trading them for some rather gory action sequences of its own.
The King’s Man is the ostensible prequel to these other movies, offering up a backstory for Kingsman leader Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes). From the trailer, you might expect another film jam-packed with terrific action sequences, but instead the film offers a more thoughtful and complex story. It’s better considered an alternative history of the first few decades of the 20th century, focused primarily on the events leading up to World War I.
Kaiser Wilelm is pushing Germany to war against his cousins King George of England and Tsar Nicholas Romaov of Russia. All three are played by talented young actor Tom Hollander. The Kaiser’s dastardly plan: Assassinate Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (Ron Cook) as an excuse to begin invading other countries. But Wilhelm is part of a secret cabal, as is the evil priest Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans). When Oxford (Fiennes) hears rumors of the impending assassination, he rushes to Austria to help, but is unable to change the tides of war.
Once Wilhelm is on the march, it’s imperative that Russia fight, with its massive military force. The Tsar is all about stopping his cousin, but Rasputin is assigned to force the Russians to withdraw, so that Germany will prevail. Rasputin does this through sly manipulation, intimating to the Tsarina Alexandra (Branka Katic) that only he, Rasputin, can heal their sick son Alexi (Alexander Shefler). King George hears of the situation and asks Orlando (Fiennes) and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) to head to Russia, along with faithful servant Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and brash American reporter Polly (Gemma Arterton). Can they stop Rasputin, identify the cabal and stop them before it’s too late?
There are some really powerful sequences, notably including young Conrad joining the front lines during World War I, the horrible trench warfare where English and German troops were a thousands yards apart, dug in, and kept trying to sneak across no-man’s land, with terrible and deadly results. In fact, the production design of The King’s Man owes much to historical dramas and classic war movies, inadvertantly also offering a breezy history lesson about the causes of World War I and how its resolution sowed the seeds of World War II.
But is it a Kingsman movie? No, but in a good way. There are some action sequences that are beautifully choreographed and surreal, many of which are shown in the extended film trailer. But The King’s Man is also the kind of cinematic back story that adds depth to a popular franchise, focused on the personal journey of the protagonist and offering insight into the origin of its many quirky elements.
As a history buff, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the film and its intriguing retelling of many events that defined the beginning of the 20th Century, from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to the Russian revolution of 1917, to the inexplicable influence that the “mad monk” Rasputin had in the Romanov court. The trailer misrepresents the movie, offering a teaser for a film of endless fights and action, but the actual story told on screen is much better than that. Recommended.