The King's Man (MA15+, 131 minutes)
As the first Kingsman movie opened eight years ago, the filmmakers were suggesting that it might fill the space that Bond was relinquishing. Maybe then, but not any more. Bond has of course had a comeback, even while the mood stays sombre.
In this origin story film, series writer-director Matthew Vaughn and his team tell how the Kingsman club for gentlemen spies came into being above a tailor shop in Savile Row. It has something to do with Arthurian legend, the cut of a man's trousers and his conduct in the wider world beyond class privilege.
In the absence of Colin Firth and Taron Egerton et al from the first two films, much rests on Ralph Fiennes in the role of Orlando, a Duke of Oxford in the time of the First World War. His elegance, pained expression and repressed persona are a perfect fit for an establishment anti-hero who is harbouring strong pacifist views.
It's a nice bit of intertextuality having Fiennes, who is of course currently M from MI6 in the Bond franchise, as the main character. The King's Man origin story has to work without Firth and the rest of the cast familiar to fans of the two earlier films, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle in 2017. The entire series, including Kingsman: The Blue Blood that is due out next year, is based on the comic books first published in 2012, very recent additions to Marvel compared to the many others that have been rendered recently for the screen.
It takes fully 45 minutes of running time before there is much of a hint of humour. There is little to be light about, I guess, during the opening scenes in a Boer concentration camp when the duke loses his wife and the mother of his young son, Conrad. Emily, Duchess of Oxford (Alexandra Maria Lara) dies in the crossfire of an exchange between British soldiers and Boers, while the duke is wounded in the knee.It's an injury that still troubles him as we fast-forward 15 years to when Conrad (Harris Dickinson) is landing a light plane at the family estate back in England.
As the drums of war are beating in the lead-up to World War I, and when the terrible trench warfare is underway in France and Belgium, Conrad, like so many other young men, is keen to serve his country. Nothing could be further from Orlando's mind than giving his blessing to his son and only child.
In an effort to convince the Americans to join the war effort with Britain, France and Russia, Orlando, Conrad, and two of their staff, Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton), set off to despatch Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), the evil monk who has the Russian Tsar (Tom Hollander) in thrall with opium and hypnosis.
Playing King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas, Hollander has a busy time behind the scenes getting into character for all three monarchs of the Allied powers. But it is Ifans who makes the far stronger impression as Rasputin. He delivers one of the best lines of the film when, at an event where he first lays eyes on Orlando and Conrad, dinner suit penguins both, he asks if they are waiters or Englishmen.
It is in these scenes, with Ifans camping it up as the bisexual holy man, practised in the dark arts, dangerous as a cornered serpent, where The King's Man finds its intended, rollicking footing. Only to lose it again, all too soon.
In her role as Polly, Arterton is also a spirited presence. She can handle a pistol, use the martial arts for self-defence and bake a mean Bakewell tart, laced with cyanide and topped with flaked almonds.
It seems that The King's Man is at odds with itself. It wants to be serious and not serious at the same time. A long way from rollicking fun, this surprisingly earnest origin story uses some actual historical moments to underpin its case for a return to first principles of gentlemanly honour.
Some of the best action occurs in the final scenes with the big reveal of the identity of the Scottish-accented uber villain who lives on a rocky protrusion with his goats, but by then we are so bemused by it all, we may forget to laugh.
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