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'The King's Man' review: Joyless prequel can't match energy of its predecessors

Courtesy of 20th Century Studios


A prequel years in the making (and delayed several times) Matthew Vaughn’s ambitiously lopsided piece of revisionist history “The King’s Man” is a pointless, half-hazard entry in a dormant franchise struggling for relevance. There was a time when “Kingsman: The Secret Service” slapped a giant smile on my face because it not only introduced the world to Taron Egerton, but had fun with its graphic novel inspired premise. The church sequence involving Colin Firth’s Harry Hart obliterating everything with a pulse lives rent free inside my head. You could argue its follow-up, “The Golden Circle,” a far cry from “Secret Service,” had charm. But aside from a bonkers scene involving the execution of Russian oligarch Rasputin (Rhys Ifan is a mad man), there’s not much in “The King’s Man” worthy of discussion.

“The King’s Man” moves at a sluggish pace and feels misplaced in the franchise. What happened to the camaraderie or sense of flamboyant edginess that became the series trademark? Vaughn, working with a script he co-wrote with Karl Gajdusek, never finds the correct balance or tone. In one instance, someone is meeting their demise and the next, the soundtrack is dropping an upbeat tune to help push the action along. “The King’s Man” wants to be “Inglorious Bastards” in its methods of reshaping historical context (it would work if some of those ideas weren’t doused in sheer lunacy) yet the screenplay can’t deliver beyond a plot involving nameless villains (is that, adjusts glasses, Daniel Brühl?) trying to start World War II. It’s as joyless as it sounds.

Still, the main problem is how “The King’s Man” seeks to answer a question nobody who enjoyed the first two ever asked: How did this secret society of English spies, operating out of a London tailor shop, become who they are? Prequels are always a bed of hot coals: they either enhance what’s come before and reward fans or take the money and run. In the current franchise dominant marketplace, any existing IP is valuable for whatever streaming service the studio owns and “The King’s Man” feels like a direct to streaming clunker that somehow managed to get an exclusive theatrical release.

At least Ralph Fiennes makes some of the film’s dreadful stretches watchable. He plays the Duke of Oxford, a widower whose wife perished during the Boer War and is raising his son for a life outside of espionage. He soon uncovers a syndicate of diabolic baddies hellbent on starting their own war and it becomes his civil duty to stop them. However, the film's momentum gets tricky when you already know the outcome, leaving minimal room for tension, but it only enhances how airless the action sequences are executed. If not for a climatic mountain-side showdown, offering a moderately fun piece of escapism, “The King’s Man” would find itself in a much worse position.

All of this is to say, “The King’s Man,” which tries to paint an unflattering portrait of an already unfavorable President Wilson, is a hot mess. Even an eclectic lineup of Gemma Arterton, Harris Dickinson, and Djimon Hounsou could steer this rafter to port. I appreciate Vaughn and company’s big creative swing (something most franchises stay away from), but “The King’s Man” digs itself into a convoluted (and boring) hole that it can never feasibly crawl out of.

Grade: D+

THE KING’S MAN opens in theaters Wednesday, December 22nd


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