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starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Charles Dance
screenplay by Matthew Vaughn & Karl Gajdusek
directed by Matthew Vaughn
by Bill Chambers Make no mistake, 2014's Kingsman: The Secret Service is reactionary horseshit, but I got a kick out of its shock tactics and couldn't deny that this new chapter in producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn's career held some unlikely appeal as an alternative if not an antidote to the antiseptic Marvel and faux-gritty DC cinematic universes. The film was tacit confirmation that Vaughn, after courting controversy with Kick-Ass, had embraced his inner Droog: he would now revel in the violence and latent fascism of his favoured crime and superhero fiction--albeit drolly, like a more cartoonish S. Craig Zahler. In retrospect, however, it's probably more accurate to say that Vaughn let muse Mark Millar, who wrote the graphic novels Kingsman and Kick-Ass were based on, Pied Piper him into a brick wall, i.e., the dead-end that is The King's Man, the third chapter in a trilogy that had nowhere to go and so goes backwards to tell an origin story--complete with the dulled edges that tend to happen to adult-skewing franchises as kids become their prevailing consumer. Unlike RoboCop 3 or Police Academy III: Back in Training, The King's Man retains the R rating of its predecessors, though here it feels like the MPA is primarily trying to protect children from boredom.
It's the early 20th century. Former soldier Orlando (Ralph Fiennes), the Duke of Oxford, is visiting friend Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance) at a concentration camp in South Africa on behalf of the Red Cross when the Boers attack, leaving Orlando critically wounded, his wife (the overqualified Alexandra Maria Lara) dead, and their little boy Conrad (Alexander Shaw) wishing they'd gone to Wally World. The sequence succeeds up to a point as an homage to the classic spaghetti-western-type opening in which an eerie calm settles over the dusty landscape before marauders show up; it is, I suppose, a respite from the peddling of '60s cool that had been this franchise's mien. But why is the whole family on vacation with Orlando? It's such a false way to position the chess pieces, even if these movies aren't known or valued for their believability.
Twelve years later, Conrad (Harris Dickinson, truly the James Franciscus to Taron Egerton's Heston) is a strapping young man itching to take up arms against enemies of Britain, but Orlando promised Conrad's late mother that her son would never see a battlefield, and so he recruits Conrad to his underground intelligence network that's populated with domestics--including their maid, Polly (Gemma Arterton), and their aide-de-camp, Shola (Djimon Hounsou). Then Kitchener asks Orlando and Conrad to be part of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand's motorcade on its fateful drive through Sarajevo, and the first time Gavrilo Princip tries to assassinate the Archduke, Conrad foils the attempt. The second time, alas, neither he nor the Archduke is so lucky. In short, The King's Man Gumps our heroes into history, albeit in a weirdly dry and correct way that feels as much like homework as any prequel has since "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles". If this were Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, the Manson family would still kill Sharon Tate, but Orlando and Conrad would be there to say, "So that happened."
Orlando's spy ring has led to the formation of a SPECTRE opposite led by the Blofeld-bald "The Shepherd," whose face is laboriously concealed to make for a big reveal that won't surprise anybody doing the math. (I found this heel-turn exceptionally pointless until I realized the mild curiosity it inspired was the only thing towing me towards the ending.) The Shepherd has assembled a "flock" of world-class assassins--Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) among them--with the aim of pitting Germany, Russia, and England against one another in some sort of global skirmish or <scare quotes>World War</scare quotes>. No spoilers except to say that Conrad is eventually conscripted into the British army. You may ask if this movie that ostensibly celebrates the servant class saving our asses from the sidelines is taking a piss by having them come nowhere near preventing WWI, and it's a good question. I'm going to be generous and chalk it up to the confused ideology that is this series' trademark. Indeed, The King's Man strikes a bizarrely solemn note for a movie that's mainly about a hopeless underdog (Orlando) begging America to join the war effort. There is no tongue in its cheek, just a kind of phony gravitas as England (Orlando) takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Maybe the problem is that the message is fine--a salve, even, post-Brexit--but the vessel is too suspect, too corrupt.
I wouldn't even know how to define this instalment's politics, which are presumably simpatico with humanitarian barbarian peace-activist war-mongering aristocratic leader of the proles Orlando, who is nothing if not philosophically mercurial. Fiennes's performance is predicated on looking dashing in Savile Row suits and wielding a cane like a sword--in other words, he reprises his John Steed from Jeremiah S. Chechik's The Avengers but in a curiously staid adventure serial that offers no redemption for that misbegotten enterprise and may actually be worse, because at least The Avengers had killer teddy bears, Uma Thurman in a skintight leather catsuit, and a comparatively brief running time. (The King's Man is 42 minutes longer.) What The King's Man does have going for it is a heckuva restaging of Rasputin's protracted demise, complete with Ifans doing Cossack twirls between blows as he takes on Orlando, Shola, and Conrad in quick succession. This is after Rasputin has eaten and regurgitated an entire Bakewell tart for the energy to cure Orlando's bum leg. It's a sequence that finally delivers the comic zest and frenetic action you were waiting for--and will wait for again in vain.
There's another oddball moment that jolts The King's Man to life, when Orlando loses control of his yellow biplane--I can only admire the picture's dedication to referencing its leading man's past roles (in this instance, Count Almásy of The English Patient) as though his iconic footprint were much bigger than it really is--and misses the villain's lair in his parachute-jump to safety, instead crash-landing against the steep plummet of a cliff. (Talk about meta.) A CGI reindeer licks his face, reviving him, and a sudden zoom out reveals the Looney Tunes absurdity of his predicament. The reindeer's obliviousness to the laws of gravity is funny as well, both as animal behaviour and as deadpan. It's too little, too late, though, and by the time Vaughn's putting cameras on the swords during the climactic duel, the flop sweat is palpable. The sweet relief of credits proves short-lived, too, as they're interrupted by a teaser promising more of the same wax museum come to life, with Hitler cynically positioned as the next supervillain like he's Thanos or something. That may be why The King's Man, for all its relative tameness, is the most offensive entry yet: it sells out.
THE 4K UHD DISC
The King's Man docks on 4K UHD disc in a 2.39:1, 2160p transfer with HDR10 encoding. I struggled to find fault with the image, which liberally utilizes HDR but also knows when to dial it back. Take the scene where Polly surprises Conrad with a birthday cake, the candles evoking heat and flickering brightly enough to be a convincing source of bounce lighting on Arterton's face. But when she sets the cake down in the foreground of a lonesome shot of Fiennes, there is none of that intensity so as not to make the cake the subject of the frame. The highlight of the presentation, literally and figuratively, might be Conrad's heroic run to the trenches at dawn with the sun huge behind him, silhouetting him with its brilliance. While the colours and mid-range contrast are, in fact, more subdued in 4K HDR than they are on the accompanying Blu-ray, The King's Man looks more cinematic in UHD, and the added resolution better resolves the finest details of the ubiquitous formal wear and ornate period décor. The attendant Dolby Atmos track, in its 7.1 mixdown, thankfully doesn't seem to suffer from that Disney problem of a low base volume. There's a nice transparency to the mix--with or without height channels, it's enveloping--and the gunfire never collapses into white noise, not even against the bone-rattling explosions. The Rasputin fight goes for expressionism by laying on the decibels thick for everything: the dialogue, the sound effects, the Tchaikovsky overture; it's a lot like having a ringside seat at the circus.
A sticker on the slipcover touting the opportunity to "go deeper into the world of Kingsman with over 2 hours of bonus extras" filled me with the apprehension I feel when I see the number for poison-control on soap products. As the 4K disc is reserved for the feature, these supplements are housed on the Blu-ray and kick off with "The King's Man: The Great Game Begins" (90 mins.), an umbrella heading for six featurettes--"A Generation Lost," "Oxfords and Rogues," "All the World's a Stage," "Instruments of War," "Fortune Favors the Bold," and "Long Live the Kingsman"--that together comprise one long making-of. It's here that Vaughn confirmed my nagging suspicion that The King's Man was a Trojan horse for the war movie he wanted to make. He realized he could make it by piggybacking onto his preexisting franchise; or believed he could, anyway. Practically a convention of the horror genre, a bait-and-switch of this magnitude isn't unheard-of, although it tends to leave one waiting for the other shoe to drop--which, in the case of The King's Man, exhausted my capacity for emotional involvement. This is an uncritical but capable behind-the-scenes documentary that doesn't stint on geeky details (actor Dance is gleeful about being photographed with an 800mm lens) and ends with a lengthy segment focused on the music. Therein, Vaughn directs co-composers Matthew Margeson and Dominic Lewis to emulate John Barry, who wrote all those lush scores for the old James Bond movies. Speaking of which, Arterton says Vaughn persuaded her to do the film by dangling the prospect of a sequel in which she would inhabit the role of a female 007. For her sake and hers alone, I hope it happens.
Meanwhile, "No Man's Land: Silent Knife Fight Sequence Breakdown" (16 mins.) opens with Vaughn saying he wanted to capture the "acute madness" of trench warfare in as vérité a fashion as possible without going the pseudodocumentary route, yet what was authentic wasn't always dynamic, thus for The King's Man the German army's uniforms were darkened and a controversial skull-and-crossbones motif was incorporated into their paraphernalia. (And, of course, they're shooting in a car park in West London, not the real no-man's-land territory in France.) I don't know, I guess I think of striving for historical fidelity in the name of the Kingsman franchise as tantamount to sewing little dresses for your excrement before you flush it. Lastly, in the earnest "Remembrance and Finding Purpose" (26 mins.) Vaughn clarifies that The King's Man is an antiwar film but not an anti-soldier film. The piece proceeds to hear from Director General of The Royal British Legion Charles Byrne, who rather speciously claims that "most people" emerge from combat "stronger, confident, very, very able, don't have a problem at all" but does concede that PTSD is a Thing the Royal British Legion is equipped to address with programs such as Battle Back. We hear from veterans who've rehabilitated through sports and participated in the Invictus Games, and...yeah, no snark, they're lovely people who richly deserve these 15 minutes of fame. Rounding out the 20th Century Studios platter is a redband trailer for The King's Man in DD 2.0. A digital copy of the film is included with the purchase.
131 minutes; R; UHD: 2.39:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), HDR10, BD: 2.39:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English Dolby Atmos, English DVS 2.0, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD+ 7.1, Korean DD+ 7.1, BD: English 7.1 DTS-HD MA, English DD 5.1, English DVS 2.0, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; English SDH, French, Spanish, Korean subtitles; BD-66 + BD-50; Region-free; 20th Century Studios