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The King’s Man – action worthy of the name

The King’s Man has been long delayed in its release, initially planned to hit theaters in November 2019, with its release date pushed back multiple times until this week’s release on Dec. 22, 2021. Fans of the Kingsman franchise have been asking, “is it worth the wait?”

The answer is complicated.

This is a prequel for the Kingsman series, which is based on the graphic novel The Secret Service by Mark Millar and David Gibbons. The first movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, debuted in 2014, followed by Kingsman: The Golden Circle in 2017. The movie depicts the events that led up to the formation of the Kingsman organization in the early 20th century as well as serving as a “secret history” of World War I.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Orlando Oxford, Gemma Arterton as Polly Wilkins, Rhys Ifans as Grigori Rasputin, Djimon Hounsou as Shola, Harris Dickinson as Conrad Oxford, Matthew Goode as Morton, and Tom Hollander as King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas.

The film opens with Orlando Oxford visiting a camp in Africa where an attack kills his wife and leaves him with a leg injury. The first third of the movie follows Orlando as his son, Conrad, grows to manhood and begins to be restless at the protectiveness his father has done to prevent him from being in a dangerous situation like the one that killed his mother. Meanwhile, we see glimpses of a shadowed Mysterious Scottish Man that is arranging world events to cause major chaos utilizing many notable tyrants and criminals from history. 

Orlando makes a trip to Austria with Conrad where they are witnesses to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, who was working as an agent of the mysterious Scottish man. Further events are shown with the three leaders and the starting of World War I (all played by Tom Hollander, because they all were related and look alike aside from differences in their facial hair). After returning from Austria, Orlando reveals that he has set up an intelligence network to keep eyes and ears open about threats to England and their allies.  

The movie up to this point has been fairly straightforward in its storytelling, but finally starts to feel more like a Kingsman movie once Orlando and Conrad travel to Russia to confront Rasputin, whom they suspect of influencing the Tsar (unknown to Orlando at the direction of the Mysterious Scottish Man). The sequence where they fight with Rasputin is a well choreographed action set piece with a fun match of the action to the music, and is worthy of the franchise’s expectations.

The story takes a more serious turn when Conrad enlists to go fight in the war and we get a serious look at life in the trenches — resulting in tragic consequences.

The rest of the team working for the Mysterious Scottish Man get involved in major events in the war involving intercepted telegraphs, forged letters between the leaders and a blackmail film of Woodrow Wilson, which is the final block to America entering the war.

Orlando discovers intelligence about the whereabouts of the blackmail film’s negative, which leads to the movie’s final action piece where Orlando and his team (Polly and Shola) confront the Mysterious Scottish Man at his remote mountain base. This is a solid action piece with Ralph Fiennes showing off his action chops (with some silliness involving goats, which does pay off in the end). It concludes with the official formation of the Kingsman agency, which sets things up for what we saw in The Secret Service and sets the stage for additional side stories in the franchise.

In summary, The King’s Man works well as a fun “secret history” of World War I, showing how events were manipulated to try to change the outcome of the war, and does give the backstory that led to the formation of the Kingsman organization.  It also serves as a reminder of how horrible the Great War was for the men in the trenches, which is a significant subplot in this film.

As a Kingsman movie, it has a few action pieces that are worthy of what fans would expect from the franchise, but that is not the focus of the movie. Fiennes deftly portrays Oswald’s journey (which is not an easy one) and all of his ups and downs. Seeing more of his character leading the Kingsmen in their early years would be worthwhile.

The King’s Man is directed by Matthew Vaughn, with a screenplay by Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek for 20th Century Studios. It opens on Wednesday, Dec. 22. (Don’t miss the Rasputin Dance Video.)

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About the author

Lee Whiteside

Lee Whiteside has been writing about science fiction and fantasy in various forms online since before the WWW existed. His website, sftv.org, keeps track of genre TV shows. He also is quite involved with organized fandom, having chaired CopperCons (16 & 23), LepreCons (28 & upcoming 36), The 2006 Nebula Awards, and the first North American Discworld Convention. And he runs the official Connie Willis Website at ConnieWillis.net.

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