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‘The King’s Man’: Part satire, part adventure, prequel fails at both

Movie makes constant, jarring shifts in tone, and demeans women, a Black character and U.S. troops along the way.

Conrad (Harris Dickinson) defies his pacifist father (Ralph Fiennes) to fight in World War I in “The King’s Man.”
20th Century Studios

The noble Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) and the nefarious Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) have adjourned from a lavish dinner to a side ballroom where the Duke intends to poison Rasputin while Rasputin has offered to use his mysterious powers to heal the Duke’s badly injured leg, which causes him to walk with a limp and necessitates the use of a cane.

Take off your trousers, hisses the grotesque Rasputin. The stately duke complies and then, and then, and then …

Utter madness ensues. Before it’s over two, other men have joined the confrontation, and a ridiculous (albeit well-choreographed) extended fight scene ensues, and it’s all played for zany laughs but it’s just a terrible, tone-deaf, off-putting and weird sequence that marks a career low point for just about everyone involved.

Say this much for Matthew Vaughn’s “The King’s Man,” a century-earlier prequel to “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014) and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (2017): it’s not forgettable trash, it’s MEMORABLY BAD. Careening wildly from the black comedy tone of the aforementioned sequences to deadly serious World War I battle scenes, from somber spy thriller to broad comedy, “The King’s Man” has little of the wickedly outrageous and subversive style of the original film as it flies this way and that and never sticks the landing. When it’s all said and done, you’re left exhausted by all the wasted energy — and irritated by the story’s treatment of women, the lone main Black character and every American that gave their lives in World War I.

Ralph Fiennes keeps a stiff upper lip as Orlando, a widower and pacifist who uses his class and privilege to keep his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) from enlisting in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces as World War I has broken out. Eventually, though Conrad figures out a way to join the war, and this creates a series of events that lead to the reveal Orlando is part of a small group of spies scattered across the globe who are working on behalf of Great Britain. Using Britain’s King George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II (all played by Tom Hollander) as pawns, Orlando and his associates plot to get America to join the war by any means necessary. (In this uneasy melding of fact and fiction, everything is about saving Great Britain. Who cares if 117,000 American soldiers will eventually die? The goal is to dupe President Woodrow Wilson — portrayed as an alcoholic, idiot philanderer who is caught on film receiving oral sex in the Oval Office — into bailing out the Brits.)

Meanwhile, potentially intriguing characters such as Gemma Arterton’s Polly and Djimon Honsou’s Shola are reduced to literally serving as assistants, catering to the great Orlando’s every command and mood and decision.

Making matters more convoluted, there’s an obligatory Evil Mastermind squired away in a mountaintop lair, where he lurks in the shadows and orchestrates a conspiracy to take down Great Britain. (The identity of the Evil Mastermind isn’t revealed until late in the story, but it’s pretty easy to figure out by the process of elimination.) As “The King’s Man” sputters to a conclusion, never deciding if it’s going to be a full-out black comedy satire or an adventure film with serious overtones, we get one of those ubiquitous credits-sequences setting up the next chapter in the franchise. Rarely has such a scene felt more like a threat than a promise.