‘The King’s Man’, a shockingly good matinee-style action thrill ride

Don’t shoot: Ralph Fiennes in fine form in ‘The King’s Man’.

THE KING’S MAN **** (131 minutes) MA
It might have been just another throwaway prequel/sequel/origin story to join that long list of prequel/sequel/origin stories nobody was really hankering for, so what a pleasant shock it is to find that the Kingsman origin story is such a full-blooded, well-rounded, thoroughly entertaining action adventure.

Seeing the first two unexpectedly cool films in the franchise – Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) and Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) – will probably give you a bit of an advantage over anyone going in cold, but The King’s Man turns out to be such a wholly entertaining lark it’s not going to matter much.

Set during World War I (1914-18; really? You didn’t know those dates? *sigh*) and taking a singularly revisionist view of history, writer/director Matthew Vaughn embeds the prototypical Kingsmen into the politics of the war.

Things are going badly for the Brits against the Germans and the threat of Russia pulling out of the party would be disastrous. The chief obstacle to keeping the Russians in the game is legendary firebrand, pants man and self-styled Man of God Rasputin (a ZZ Top-bearded Rhys Ifans). So he’s got to go.

Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes, in very fine form), who ultimately forms the secret Kingsmen organization, heads off with his dashing son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) to sort him.

But who telling Rasputin what to do? Turns out there’s a secret society of evil power brokers – sort of a wannabe Illuminati – headed by a mysterious gent called The Shephard.

He holds his pow-wows in a shack impressively situated on top of a remote flat-top mountain that is only accessible by a pretty nifty hand-cranked elevator. Also, the super-hush venue is home to some very aggressive goats.

Luckily for the world, Oxford has formed a network of spies who gather valuable information using their cover as servants.

He’s keen to keep his precious Conrad out of the fighting and away from the front, but Conrad’s patriotic instinct to be part of the national lunacy and do his bit for the King sees him assuming the identity of another soldier so he can join his brothers on the blood-soaked battlefield.

There be no two ways about it: The King’s Man is pure pulp; beautifully prepared and served, it’s a B-grade action-adventure movie with A-grade storytelling, including a series of splendidly engineered twists with an absolute beaut that will snap any audience into stunned silence.

Taking a page out of the Indiana Jones playbook, the film’s final reel is a flat-out knockout, a thrill-upon-thrill series of action-movie staples that deliver cliffhanger payoffs by the milk bucket.

The film’s style is so polished and assured Vaughn seamlessly manages to insert some sobering glimpses of battlefield horror: a line of young soldiers are mown down by a single burst of machine gun fire; a time-lapse sequence shows a beautiful stretch of the French landscape being transformed into a shattered killing field by two years of war.

As a holiday film, The King’s Man is terrific escapist entertainment in the old-school matinee tradition. As an origin story we didn’t really need, it justifies its existence several times over.

Plus, it has an end-credit teaser that out-does Marvel, with a sensational punchline promising a follow-up that just might be compulsive viewing, provided Vaughn does as good a job as he’s done here.

Footnote: As with a lot of big films released in 2021 and set to be released in 2022, Covid delayed The King’s Man by two years. It was meant to come out in November, 2019.