BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Forgive borrowing a line from Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” but it works so properly in this situation. The question to Matthew Vaughn – the man behind the two previous “Kingsman” movies – is “Why so serious?” with the third offering.
Vaughn created a hugely entertaining franchise with “Kingsman: Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Gold Circle.” Granted, the second film was loaded with writing problems but both films were pure fun. It was as if Austin Powers had suddenly become a proper gentleman.
The third film in the franchise – “The King’s Man” – has been stripped of everything that made the other two movies different and enjoyable. As both the writer and director, Vaughn has no one to blame for this disaster but himself.
“King’s Man” is set before the start of World War I. The world has not heard of the super-secret society of gentlemen who have kept London and the world safe for almost a century. The reason no one has heard of them is that this film serves as the origin.
It starts with proper British Lord Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) who has dedicated himself to keeping the promise to his deceased wife that he would not let anything bad happen to their son. But when the lad, Conrad Oxford (Harris Dickinson), nears the age of 19, he longs to serve his country.
Lord Oxford’s solution is to allow his son to go with him on a diplomatic mission to deal with a nervous Archduke Ferdinand. Anyone who has read a history book knows how that mission ended.
The event that triggered a World War is the work of a mysterious mastermind who lurks in the shadows. He sends evildoers – such as Mata Hari (Melanie Pachner) and Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) – to keep the evil pot brewing in hopes it will overflow into England.
This is the point where Vaughn veered away from the elements that made the first two offerings so strong and settled into a mundane story of the ills of war played out without a true structure. Vaughn has taken a handful of different ideas and thrown them against a backdrop of World War I in hopes something works.
Fiennes is a strong actor but he doesn’t project the same kind of stiff upper lip that Colin Firth used to make his Harry Hart such a proper and perfect central figure for the first two films. All Fiennes does is try to advance the spy vs. guy tale and survive an embarrassing exchange with Rasputin.
Samuel L. Jackson played a very colorful villain in “Kingsman: Secret Service” – maybe too colorful at times – but at least his absurd role was a nice balance to the gentlemanly ways of the heroes. Ifans plays Rasputin as if he had escaped from an episode of “Drunk History.” That is fun for a few moments but gets painfully awkward quickly.
The first two “Kingsman” movies also had the charismatic Taron Egerton whose transformation from ruffian to refined hero accounts for an endless supply of fun moments. Dickinson comes the closest to having such a responsibility but his character is one of the most mishandled in the past 10 years of cinema.
There is an irony to how the most interesting character in a film called “The King’s Man” is played by a woman. Vaughn would have had a much better film if this production had focused on Polly as played by Gemma Arterton. She is the most intelligent, heroic and level-headed character in the film but is used only as a supporting player.
Vaughn based his script for “The King’s Man” on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. But his screenplay with Karl Gajdusek retains only the two-dimensional feel of the source material. The original films had the same source material but Vaughn showed more creativity with those adaptations.
This time he opted more for want over wit, predictability over creativity and a deadpan approach over having fun. It begs the question again of “Why so serious Matthew Vaughn?”
“The King’s Man” is scheduled to open in movie theaters starting Dec. 22 as long as there is no disruption caused by the recent COVID surge.
Movie review: 1 and 1/2 stars
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance.
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Rated: R for violence, language, sexual material
Running time: 131 minutes.