Writer/director Matthew Vaughn is a name synonymous with hyper-violence and comedy thanks to projects like Kick-Ass (2010) and The Kingsman series, but he’s also responsible for writing/directing Stardust (2007) and X-Men: First Class (2011), as well as the script for X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). This is worth bringing up at the front of a home release review for The King’s Man, a prequel to the first two Kingsman movies newly available on Hulu, digital-to-own, and physical formats, because this film holds more in common with the latter projects than the former. Compared to the rock ‘n roll bombast of The Secret Service (2014) and The Golden Circle (2017), The King’s Man is a soft rock ballad, removing the excess present-day action spy films have made common and adopting something far more sincere and straightforward. Going backward can be difficult for franchise films, finding ways to make things feel relevant yet connected while also making us care about a foregone conclusion before we even sit down to watch. In my estimation, this is why Vaughn chose to lean into the more straightforward approach, removing the tongue-in-cheek and hyperviolence that Kingsman is known for in order to remind us of the sacrifice that created the independent spy organization in the first place.
Early in the 20th century, Duke Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) tries desperately to be a man of peace after spending portions of his life killing in the name of the English crown. As the world grows every closer to its first world war, Oxford must contend with keeping the vow to himself not to kill and the vow he made to his late wife to protect their son Conrad (Harris Dickinson). With each choice Oxford makes, he not only must contend with threats coming from all sides, he grows ever closer to the birth of an extraordinary legacy as the first King’s Man.
In the first portion of the feature-length documentary “The Great Game Begins,” Vaughn acknowledges that the audience reception to The Golden Circle was justified in thinking they’d gone too far in the use of humor and surreality. In so doing, there’s a pointed effort in The King’s Man to go back to basics. This serves the purpose of giving the future stories a solid foundation to have been built from, but also enables the film to be more grounded than the others, more somber, yet feel still feel linked. It’s not just the locations, like the Kingsman shop, that give The King’s Man its connection to the future, but the styling of certain shots or the structure of conversations that create an echo between this “first” story and The Secret Service. Additionally, in that first film, via a conversation between Colin Firth’s Harry Hart and Taron Egerton’s new recruit Eggsy, we learn that Kingsman was created to prevent further death after several aristocratic members lost children and family to combat. So not only is it inevitable for Oxford to endure horrible loss, but to do so with the same humor that made the spy spoof series singular would be tasteless in the new context. Thus, while not totally humorless, The King’s Man is more spy drama than action adventure. This may strike franchise fans as a backwards move, yet it’s plain that Vaughn understands that different stories require different tones and that doing the same thing over and over is both bland and uninspired. Plus, as he states himself in “A Generation Lost,” the first two films needed a place to grow from, so having The King’s Man absent the gadgetry, tech, and cinematic style provides a foundation from which the ridiculous can come.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the film, more than the entire Rasputin fight sequence, is how much of real history The King’s Man uses that would otherwise be considered too much in a regular script. Example, Tom Hollander plays cousins King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Tsar Nicholas. In a standard Kingsman script, this would seem like Hollywood nonsense and an excuse to use the fantastic Hollander three different ways. Vaughn is the same man who gave us Mark Strong’s Merlin’s death scene set to an acapella “Take Me Home Country Roads” and an action scene set to a diegetic performance of Elton John’s “Saturday Nights Alright (For Fighting),” so no one going to accuse the man of subtly. Yet the three world leaders were cousins who looked very much alike and often traded outfits to confuse people. The scene in which Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman) successfully assassinates the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (Ron Cook) by sheer happenstance after the first attempt is foiled — totally happened. It’s played for a laugh, but it’s basically true. Much of the script from Vaughn and co-writer Karl Gajdusek (The November Man) takes what it can from history, including the various nefarious people serving as the villains under the mysterious Sheppard (who is entirely fabricated for the film), giving the cinematic world of Kingsman the grounded foundation it needs so that the oddball future we know to come can grow. For those who find the extended realism fascinating, what’s truly glorious about the bonus features on this home release, is how in-depth they go and how they possess the potential to reframe how one enjoys The King’s Man entirely.
Of the many films released since COVID-19’s arrival, few home releases have offered such intensive deep dives into the films. Most include the bare minimum trailer and brief featurette, while others offer maybe 10-20 minutes of insider details. The longest in length since the shifting schedules of major releases began is likely Last Night in Soho with approximately 101 minutes of bonus materials, though Dune’s approximately 71 minutes of materials feels equally in-depth. The King’s Man includes roughly 132 minutes of materials, about as long as the film itself. Via the stacked documentary and featurettes you’ll explore everything that went into the feature film from cast chemistry, stunts, production design, costuming, and the very real history of the era. It’s a history/film nerds dream. While I would ordinarily bemoan the lack of director’s commentary track, “The Great Game Begins” is a perfect replacement as it enables you to re-experience the film without merely listening to voices over the film. It’s a proper investigation of how they created The King’s Man from clothes swatches to camera lens.
Just because I enjoyed The King’s Man doesn’t mean I don’t understand why others might not. Secret Service and Golden Circle are modern spy action adventure stories that lean hard into the tropes created from decades of 007 films. This film doesn’t. Its approach is a classic form of espionage, where manners maketh man more than whether or not your tech-enhanced lasso can slash someone in half. The King’s Man takes place at a point in history when war was inevitable and death could come at any moment, no matter how well one planned to avoid it. Just as easily as one can murder thanks to the happenstance of a wrong turn, one can easily get killed by being mistaken for a plant. Vaughn’s The King’s Man explores the inevitability of man-made death and why those with the means have a responsibility to prevent it, not for glory but because it’s the right thing to do. For all its dour presentation, there’s a persistent hope which makes the transition from the past to the future empowering and possible.
The King’s Man Special Features:
- The King’s Man: The Great Game Begins Documentary (1:29:37)
- A Generation Lost – Discover how the filmmakers created a richly textured story that explores the origins of the Kingsman spy organization. (11:23)
- Oxfords and Rogues – Meet the phenomenal new cast of characters Matthew Vaughn has assembled. (18:34)
- All the World’s a Stage – Delve into the meticulous world-building of The King’s Man with interviews, on-location footage, artwork, and details of on-set construction and design. (26:42)
- Instruments of War – Experience the analog spy tech and early 20th century weaponry utilized in The King’s Man and see a breakdown of the precise execution and evolution of the major stunts and combat in the film. (17:01)
- Fortune Favors the Bold – Join Matthew Vaughn and his team for music scoring and sound design. (11:47)
- Long Live the Kingsman – Cast and crew reveal their thoughts about their collective journey through the very special experience of making The King’s Man. (4:11)
- The King’s Man Featurettes
- No Man’s Land – Experience the creative process behind the harrowing knife battle sequence in several stages: rehearsals, storyboards, interviews and on-set footage, culminating with the atmospheric VFX. (15:43)
- Remembrance and Finding Purpose – Learn about amazing organizations such as The Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes, two U.K.-based resources for recovery, well-being and employment for military veterans. Also hear why Matthew Vaughn strongly supports their mission. (26:29)
*bonus features vary by product and retailer
Available on digital and Hulu February 18th, 2022.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD February 22nd, 2022.
For more information, head to 20th Century Studio’s official The King’s Man website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.