The King’s Man
Perhaps it’s down to the World War I setting and the accompanying glib appropriations and reinventions, but the aggressive juvenilia of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman franchise has now become the distracting motive force. Previously, I gave it, if not a free pass, the benefit of the doubt due to those elements that succeeded, albeit to diminishing degrees. Here, whether he’s replotting history in a sub-Alan Moore, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen manner, establishing period characters as the most irritating quip-smart Steven Moffat clones, or delivering trite moralising on the horrors of war while simultaneously revelling in graphic and bombastically choreographed bloodletting, The King’s Man, to use the kind of vernacular he and fellow toff Guy Ritchie adore, got on my tits.
Ritchie at least brings energetic personality to his cheeky mockney fare. Vaughn, especially in tandem with Mark Millar, tends simply to the crude and vulgar as a badge of adolescent pride. I’ve enjoyed his movies, by and large, but I suspect it’s no coincidence that his most satisfying – X-Men: First Class – was one where he couldn’t indulge his every crass whim. As a director, he and Ritchie have a similar flair for stylised, precisely scored action, although – as with his penchant for the puerile – he appears to have no mechanism for restraint, such that sequences frequently cross the line from dazzling to distracting through an exhausting overreliance on CGI-enhancement.
Vaughn also loves his profanity, both verbal and sexual, here personified by Rasputin (Rhys Ifans sounding outrageously cod-Russian) and the Shepherd (Matthew Goode, sporting an accent apparently modelled on The Simpsons’ Groundskeeper Willie). The latter, in particular, unleashes torrents of gutturally anachronistic vitriol along the lines of “Fuckstick!”, “Come to papa, you posh prick!” and “What say we end this shite like gentlemen?” Rasputin, meanwhile, has a penchant for “sweet cakes and even sweeter boys”.
This goes hand-in-hand with a (sweet) cake-and-eat-it approach to whatever notional messaging his movies promote. It’s abundantly clear that Vaughn has zero personal interest in positive or progressive statements, with the consequence that any such content tends to be double edged. A great deal is made of the horrors of war, and with this relating largely to WWI, Vaughn is evidently bandwagoning both Wonder Woman and 1917; The King’s Man was originally scheduled for a late 2019 release, and even given the coof, it’s a sign of Disney’s lack of faith in the picture that it repeatedly got shunted down the schedules, audience overfamiliarity with trailers likely leading many to think they’d seen it already. Neither of those earlier pictures exactly made the case for a sobering depiction of that conflict, one boasting Diana Prince charging through No Man’s Land in slow motion, the other a case of faux-responsible opportunism strung together on its “single shot” premise.
The King’s Man’s writing – from Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek – is so utterly pedestrian, the dialogue so atrociously hackneyed, at times you wonder if it isn’t intended to be a caricature of itself. We open during the (Second) Boer War, during which Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) is revealed as a staunch pacifist (“Lead by example. That’s why your mother and I are patrons of the Red Cross” – evidently, he’s unaware of the abundant grounds for the charity’s disrepute). His concerns elicit risibly on-the-nose lines such as “Pardon me sir, but these concentration camps are the reason we’re winning this war”.
Orlando dishes numerous speeches to son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) on this subject, but the latter is nevertheless eager to go off to fight and do his bit. “Every man I killed, I killed a piece of myself” Orlando advises, so he “Put down my rifle and picked up a stretcher”. I mean really, what fuckstick wrote that shite? Adding insult to injury and as noted in the opening paragraph, it’s readily evident from Vaughn’s celebration of ultra-violence (see also Kick-Ass and The Kingsmans) that he’s paying no more than lip service to disgust at warfare; he delights in squibs, slices and dices, explosions and decapitations.
It isn’t Conrad who embarks on a hero’s journey here; it’s Orlando transitioning to someone willing to get his hands dirty again (“Only now I have become the man my son would have been”). And we’re supposed to applaud. Unironically, if Matthew Margeson and Dominic Lewis’ score is anything testament. Vaughn also keeps a straight face when suggesting Kingsman is founded with the aim of “preserving peace and respecting life”, since the franchise’s express intent is to be as bloodily uncensored as possible. When he wants to, Vaughn can stage a first-rate action scene, such as the hand-to-hand combat in No Man’s Land. But the mere fact of it, with all its balletic excess, is essentially spitting in the face of any announced insight into the horrors of the conflict.
With Conrad, Vaughn essentially remixes his “kill the hero” twist from The Secret Service. Except that Colin Firth’s Harry was the best character in that movie – why Vaughn recanted in the sequel – and Dickinson is a personality-free zone, forgotten immediately the “shock” value has dissipated (he’s also cued up for dispatch as soon as Aaron Taylor-Johnson appears). On the subject of twists, Vaughn also makes it readily evident Goode’s Captain Morton is the villain, as the unseen Shepherd has to be one of the actors we’ve already encountered; unless Charles Dance’s Lord Kitchener faked his own death, there were limited options of one.
The Shepherd’s beef is tediously wafer thin too, and Vaughn, like Ritchie, treads a persistent and peculiar push-pull ground of celebrating and repudiating class. Kingsman is, after all, a salute to toff etiquette elevating the commoner, Eliza Doolittle style (which means, as per Vaughn’s self-styling, there’s an accompanying veneration of work-class moxie). His mastermind is so “That’ll do” in ascribed motivation that, again, you’d almost think Vaughn was doing it on purpose (but then, look at the plot of The Golden Circle). “Aristocrats like you stole my parents’ mill in Scotland when I was a lad” grouses Groundsman Willie before rattling on about “entitlement” (mind you, his parents owned a mill? Not exactly slumming it). Per the context of the movie, he is, however, expressly a bad guy, so read that as you will re the validity of the working-class grit (notably, the replacement “son” in the Kingsmen is Taylor-Johnson’s Scot Archie Reid, possibly so Vaughn can claim immunity to any accusations of anti-Scots sentiment).
So, while he’s celebrating the toffs, Vaughn must also insert the necessary sops to inclusiveness. Orlando’s organisation is built on “a network of domestics such as the world has never seen”; he treads his aristocratic ode carefully so “While British Intelligence listens at keyholes, our people are actually in the room”. He ticks his boxes of race (Djimon Hounsou as faithful Shola) and gender (Gemma Arterton as wiser-than-thou Polly). Arterton is a particularly irksome presence: Julie Walters written by Moffat, with dialogue like “Us nannies like a good gossip”, “Enough of this self-pity poppycock!” and “Why is it that boys are always so messy?”
A few genuinely enjoyable moments are strewn about the battlefield. Ifans is clearly having fun as Rasputin, and his response to being poisoned, casually projectile vomiting before adding “I apologise. Your cake… did not agree with me” made me laugh. Likewise, while I deplore the increasing reliance on CG animals in live-action movies, the goat-centric elements of the third act, particularly when it comes to mountaineering and villain goring, make for a nice break from all the human-on-human brutality.
The Kingsman series is well placed for predictive programming. Prior to this entry, it has fielded large audiences and considerable success (“Never go the prequel route” should be the message, albeit this may well be popular on Disney+). The Secret Service featured an electromagnetic signal that caused church parishioners to embark on a killing spree (which one might see as a commentary on fundamentalist doctrine, or alternatively the nascent dangers of 5G). Valentine (Sam Jackson) is seeking to avert global warming (yeah, this is Greta’s favourite movie) by transmitting a “neurological wave” that will depopulate the Earth (okay, no jab involved in its delivery, but you get the idea).
In the unwieldy sequel The Golden Circle, Julianne Moore’s leader of the world’s largest drug cartel (let’s mix and match that for big pharma) has spiked all her drugs with a lethal toxin (she demands an end to the war on drugs, but the President is happy to let users die as casualties of the same; Vaughn cut the picture’s Trump references – he wasn’t yet elected during production – but it’s evident where his mind was at).
Here, Vaughn draws attention to the essential connective tissue between apparently divided nations, through their correlate royalty/heads of state. And then, through Shepherd and his lieutenants, emphasises these leaders aren’t really in control. It’s strictly rudimentary, but nevertheless, the idea of orchestration – even with the nominal, lowbrow architects here – is salient. In the mid-credits scene. he goes as far as having the new Shepherd (Daniel Brühl) introduce Lenin (August Diehl) to Hitler (David Kross), the latter revealed as the Romanovs’ killer.
Vaughn also foregrounds the rarely discussed – by the MSM – lineage of the current British Royal family; “I’ve even been advised to change my German surname Saxe-Coburg to Windsor” comments King George (Tom Hollander, also playing Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas – an inspired idea that falls almost entirely flat, as Hollander is given very little to work with). On the other hand, in this scenario, George is a good guy/royal/aristo, distraught at the deaths of the Romanovs (but). Orlando tells Conrad “You see, years ago, there were three young cousins… Their grandmother was Queen Victoria… They grew up to become Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Tsar Nicholas of Russian, and King George of England. And now Ferdinand’s assassination has given the maniac Kaiser a reason to reignite their childhood feud”.
So, while Vaughn isn’t really going way out there – it isn’t as if he’s claiming Victoria was a man – he’s drawing attention to just how small and only nominally at-odds the world is (for his purposes, Nicholas’ gran is Victoria. There may be a theory that was the case, but officially, his wife who was Victoria’s granddaughter. The cousins part is official, though). Elsewhere, Vaughn identifies blackmail as the preferred political currency, ensuring any leaders have no thoughts of their own, at least with regard to ones straying from the dictated path; Ian Kelly’s Woodrow Wilson has been compromised, Clinton-like (not that Bill’s cited skeletons don’t make Lewinsky look like chicken feed), by Mata Hari.
Fiennes is fine, but this kind of comic-book lead isn’t really his forte – he tends to put too much graft in, when lightness of touch would have been preferred (on which subject, God forbid Vaughn ever gets hold of rights to The Avengers). Also popping up are Alison Steadman and Stanley Tucci, the latter, like Taylor-Johnson, positioned to be more central to a sequel that quite probably won’t happen. Which will be no bad thing; at this pace, the third actual Kingsman will be equally woeful.
First published by Now in Full Color on 13/02/22.