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" And do you want me to be a man? “
“Only in that one way. "
— Jane Wyman & Rock Hudson, All That Heaven Allows

MRQE Top Critic

Ballroom

An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

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This drunk history isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it is one wild ride.

As the World Burns

The trickery of Rasputin (Rhys Ifans)
The trickery of Rasputin (Rhys Ifans)

The Kingsman series has taken a radical turn. Given this is only the third episode, following 2017’s The Golden Circle, it seems odd to call it a reboot. Then again, Colin Firth and Taron Egerton are nowhere to be seen in this one — and that’s because it goes back roughly an entire century and tells the story behind the founding of the Kingsman Secret Service. But, as the movie unfolds and the end titles tease of things to come, it becomes more apparent this isn’t a reset in the traditional sense. Consider it the first salvo in the expansion of the KCU — the Kingsman Cinematic Universe.

Subversiveness is a hallmark of what has evolved into this Kingsman franchise and it’s taken to a whole new high (or low, depending on your appetite for historical liberties) in The King’s Man. Wild. It’s absolutely wild.

The story involves three cousins: King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II. (True story! And here, they’re all played by Tom Hollander (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest).) This unholy family trinity of Great Britain, Germany and Russia heats up in 1914, as the Great War erupts. At the scene of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes, No Time to Die) and his son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson, Beach Rats).

And then there’s Rasputin. Creepy, bizarre Grigori Rasputin.

This remarkable fusion of fantasy and history deftly ties together all those threads, plus Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance, Woman in Gold), right down to his demise on the HMS Hampshire off the coast of Scotland.

Scotland. That’s where this one goes a little sideways. (“Little” is so very relative in the wacky world of the Kingsman Secret Service.)

It’s a Scottish madman by the name of Morton (Matthew Goode, The Imitation Game) who leads a collective of creeps, cons and commies. His team of Knights of the Rectangular Table, so to speak, includes the aforementioned Rasputin (Rhys Ifans, Official Secrets), along with Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner, A Hidden Life), Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Bruhl, The Fifth Estate), Vladimir Lenin (August Diehl, The Last Vermeer) and others.

This movie should have a trivia track on its home video release, one dedicated to all the historical nods and Easter eggs that overpack this rarity of entertainments that becomes richer as more of its details and intricacies are discovered and appreciated.

Oxfords and Rogues

Several paragraphs ago there was mention of a guy named Orlando and his son, Conrad. Theirs is a tragic story. (And a 100% fictional one, at that.) Emily, the family matriarch, was killed in an ambush in South Africa back in 1902. Wounded in the skirmish, Orlando picked up a limp and raised his son as a single father. But he had some help. From Merlin and Galahad... Oh, but wait. We’re not ready to set the table — the Round Table — just yet. So much needs to happen first.

Regardless, the relationship between Orlando and Conrad is a complicated one. The father a pacifist, the son chomping at the bit to support the cause — to lie about his age so he can meet the bottom threshold for recruitment into the British army.

There’s a richness in their relationship that itself is uncommon, particularly considering the over-the-top mayhem surrounding them. They’re symbiotic, in a fashion. But it’s also one in which the son ultimately transforms the father. It’s not just the family politics, but their world view — and that extends out to the movie as a whole.

At times, the story is critical of the British Empire, fully acknowledging the notoriety of the protagonists’ lineage. As Orlando comments, nobility comes from being tough and ruthless. Back in the day, being a gentle man was a death sentence. At other times, King’s Man fully embraces the need to fight, especially in the face of nefarious evil.

Or, to put it another way, history is a wokist’s nightmare.

Reputation v Character

Orlando (Ralph Fiennes) with Shola (Djimon Hounsou)
Orlando (Ralph Fiennes) with Shola (Djimon Hounsou)

Kudos to returning writer/director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Karl Gajdusek (Oblivion) for grabbing the insanity of history by the throat, forcing it down to the mat and putting it in a half-nelson for the count. This is the kind of nutty entertainment that could so easily and quickly be dismissed, were it not for the fact that some of the craziest bits — or at least their inspiration — really did happen.

And we’re just now getting to the movie’s action — it’s a Kingsman movie, so of course there’s loads of action. At times it’s straight forward, at other times it’s a dizzying blend of peril and humor, the kind of action shenanigans that are wholly comfortable in an Indiana Jones or Sherlock Holmes adventure.

One of the most dazzling, crazy set pieces involves a bi-plane piloted by Orlando, a failed attempt to quietly bail out by parachute, a last-second escape and a perilous drop down to the side of a mountain that looks somewhat like Devil’s Tower. And goats.

As all of this unfolds, the best response is to cave to the madness. It’s so very difficult to argue with a movie that can crush the action and then follow it up with a joke grounded in historical reality. Consider it a mash-up of epic proportions, as if Guy Ritchie were to hook up with those kitschy literary mash-ups, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

To that end, even as the war settles down (or, at least, part one of the devastating two-parter), The King’s Man lands another joke, another jab that peels back some more of the lineage of the current messed-up state of the world. It’s another true story. King George V changes the family’s surname from the all-too Germanic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to something much more British and much more familiar: Windsor.

Teetotaler or alcoholic, The King’s Man is the kind of curveball that should make history buffs and movie buffs alike swoon, at least a little bit.

And, yeah, by war’s end, there’s a new secret service in town. Orlando refers back to his own family’s fondness for King Arthur’s tales to form an all-new Knights of the Round Table, in which all men — and women — are equal.