Every now and then, a movie comes along that is unexpectedly exceptional. One of my favorite films of 2021 that got almost no press was LAST NIGHT IN SOHO by one of my favorite directors, Edgar Wright. A movie that could have been predictable becomes a terrifying horror film during its 3rd act. It also has one of the best soundtrack moments of the past decade when the dark Siouxsie and the Banshees song “HAPPY HOUSE” begins the transition of a party scene into something more sinister. Keeping with the British theme, one of Jason Statham and Guy Ritchie’s best films in years, WRATH OF MAN, had a fantastic and complicated Ritchie-like story that brought out the best in Statham’s acting skills while taking place in some of the seedier and rundown sections of Los Angeles. Despite my enjoyment of these two films, there was one other movie made by a British director (And Ritchie acolyte) that really got my attention during the 1st quarter of 2022. That movie was THE KING’S MAN.
Matthew Vaughn has already made a name for himself since escaping from the Guy Ritchie shadow. His career kicked off by directing the fantastic LAYER CAKE which helped land its star, Daniel Craig, the new James Bond role. This was followed by the well-loved KICK ASS (A movie I did not like) and the misunderstood but solid STARDUST. But his KINGSMAN franchise has been the money maker that has established him as one of the best action directors in Hollywood. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE was an extremely entertaining movie that became a global hit. It was followed up a few years later by KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE, a sequel that did not have the charm nor interesting story of its predecessor (As well as a miscast Elton John who feels like he was placed into a different movie altogether). So my expectations were muted when THE KING’S MAN was released onto HBO MAX back in early 2022. But my expectations were completely shattered. Serving as a prequel to the KINGSMAN universe, this film was superior to the previous two films in almost every possible way.
STORY SPOILERS ARE ABOUND! IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS MOVIE, I ADVISE TO STOP READING NOW IF YOU WANT TO GO IN FRESH. WARNING IS OVER!
THE KING’S MAN starts with the always charming Ralph Fiennes advising during the Boer War in the early part of the 20th Century. His participation in the warzone leads to the death of his beloved wife right in front of his young son when the troops are sabotaged. This tragedy leads to his character becoming a pacifist as he raises his son back in England. Meanwhile, a cabal of famous individuals meet on an isolated mountain to scheme the world into war that is guided by a shadowy organization and their dominating leader. This scheme succeeds and the careful balance of peace is fractured as World War I is launched. The movie does not shy away from the history of World War I but the shadowy figure that is trying to organize the world for his benefit is eventually defeated by the reinvigorated Ralph Fiennes which leads to the creation of his KINGSMAN organization. But besides the surprisingly deep and complex story mixed around action pieces, this movie stood out to me for three important reasons.
The history inside of the movie was incredibly solid. While the shadowy organization that led to World War I was a fictional creation, our current world is burdened with its own shadow organizations that have their own interest in creating a new world. Also, the movie reflected on the incompetence of the three main world leaders, Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, King George V of the UK, and Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany who ruled three of the most powerful countries of that time. The start of World War I was often blamed on the assassination of Franz Ferdinand which is dramatized very well inside the movie. But while this event may have been the powder keg that led to political escalation, history is often more complicated than that. The utter incompetence of the world leaders during the early part of the 20th Century, the decline of the Russian, Austrian-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires simultaneously mixed with a rise in nationalism were more likely causes to one of the deadliest wars in human history. It also may have been the most “avoidable” war in human history. Going back to the beginning of the film, the Boer Wars were two separate confrontations between the colony of South Africa and the British Empire. The first Boer war that lasted only three months led to the creation and independence of the South African Republic. The second Boer war was a bloodier conflict that started because of the discovery of precious metals in the region. The U.K. beat the South African Republic and the Orange Free State and brought the country back under its control despite heavy losses. After Rasputin fails to get Russia out of the war, the shadowy organization hires another Russian influencer (Vladimir Lenin) to accomplish that goal. If you know your history, this is exactly what happened. The February Revolution led to the abolition of the monarchy and the exit of Russia from World War I. This is exactly what happens in the film. The death of Herbert Kitchener was also dramatized in the movie. Even though the boat he was on, the HMS Hampshire, was sank by a German submarine in the film, the real ship was actually destroyed by a German mine.
There were a couple of other story elements that also surprised me with the depth of knowledge that the writers had for THE GREAT WAR. When you see a movie that is a self-described action film, it always is a surprise when the film has much more depth than expected. History books often point out that the sinking of the Lusitania was the beginning of the entry of the United States into World War I. But this is historically inaccurate. Despite the sinking of that ship, the United States maintained neutrality into 1917. The Zimmerman Telegram, the authenticated document that exposed the German offer to the Mexican government and Japan of the re-partitioning of the western United States to Mexico was actually the trigger that led to the United States involvement in the war. But the movie does not shy away from showing the efforts that the British made to drag us into that quagmire. British propaganda inside the United States was rampant during the War. All of this is dramatized in some fashion in this film. After the film ends, Ralph Fiennes’ character even mentions the unfairness of the Versailles Treaty and how it could lead to further conflict. As historians know, the Versailles Treaty is often blamed for laying the groundwork for the rise of the National Socialist Party, AKA The Nazis who would drag the world into a much greater conflict only a generation later. For a simple action movie to dive this deeply into the World History of only a century ago deserves the highest of accolades. This aspect of the movie impressed me tremendously.
I would be remiss to not mention two more things that stand out in the film. The acting is superb especially Ralph Fiennes as the founder of the KINGSMAN and the “No Shits Given” performance by Rhys Ifans as Rasputin. Since the movie has a satirical bent, Ifans embraces the rumors and eccentricities of the Rasputin legend and dives full scale into a performance that steals the film. This leads to the third reason why this movie needs to be seen. I have not seen an action film that had a sequence that stood out to me more than two long, action-filled scenes in this movie. Most action movies are lucky to have one memorable scene. THE KING’S MAN has two. The first involves the assassination of Rasputin which leads to one of the best fight scenes in movie history. Not to be outdone, Ralph Fiennes’ son in the film enlists in the army and fights in the stalemated trench wars of northern Europe. The scene where his character retrieves the telegram that is so vital to ending the war is one long triumphant action scene that when completed, leads to the biggest tragedy in the film. These two scenes need to be experienced on as big of a screen as possible. Even after seeing this film over a month ago, both scenes have remained with me while I am writing this review.
If you are interested in a movie with a dark satirical edge, a surprising knowledge of history and some of the best action you will ever see on film, give THE KING’S MAN a chance. You will not be disappointed. Here is hoping that it will get nominated for Best Picture next year.
Next Week: A review and introspective analysis of Jacques Tati.
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