Movie Review: Before there were Kingsman, there was “The King’s Man”

Let’s cut to the chase with “The King’s Man,” shall we?

The movie doesn’t come to life, pop off the screen and make any impression at all until Rasputin shows up.

All this other “origin story” of the Kingsman SECRET secret service, its founding during the bloodbath that was World War I, is mostly just stuff and nonsense, and bloody dispiriting nonsense at that.

But when Lord Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) and his teen son Conrad (Harris Dickinson of TV’s Getty series, “Trust”) are shipped off to Russia to deal with this “mad monk” who has the Tsar’s ear, “King’s Man” comes to dark, deathly and damned funny life.

Rhys Ifans is charged with bringing the fun to this stolid, self-serious comic book adaptation. And the scruffy beanstalk who stole “Notting Hill” is just the man for the job of The Monk The Russians Could Not Kill.

Every plummy turn of phrase, delivered in silly Slavic-accented English, tickles.

“You dare to QVESTION ze vessel of ze LORD?”

With a little help from stunt doubles and special effects this Rasputin does a manic Russian sabre dance set to…Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.”

And as villains go, Rasputin was the Michael Myers of his day. He took a licking and kept on ticking.

Ifans’ turn, making the mystic someone with a hint of actual supernatural healing powers, a sweet tooth and a taste for sex of every and all varieties, is a hoot. He’s so good that he almost stops this two hour and 11 minute death march cold. And “stopping” is the last thing this monstrosity needed.

It’s not really the cast’s fault. Well, not much their fault. Director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn has an impossible time of making the run-up to The Great War anything but tragic. The crowned heads of Europe hurtle towards the inevitable, with Rasputin, Lenin, Gavrilo Princip and his co-conspirators, the out-of-date Lord Kitchener (Charles Dance) either hastening the disaster, or unable to forestall it.

A cute touch — having Tom Hollander play the cousins King George, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicolas — a pointed reminder of the political system that helped cause the war, and was mostly destroyed because of it.

Fiennes plays Britain’s most famous landed and titled pacifist, a man who lost his wife as they tried to provide aid to the victims in a South African concentration camp during the Boer War. Lord Oxford’s vow to keep their son safe is why he won’t allow young Conrad to enlist in 1914. He sees the war that this quickly became, a mass slaughter meatgrinder trapped in the trenches of Flanders and France.

“It’s not fighting. It’s dying.”

But when Kitchener summons him to form this back-door spy service to manipulate events and alter the course of history, the Oxfords are on board. Scheming, spying, bespoke tailoring and derring do ensue.

Truth be told, the movie never crawls out from under the pall of those opening acts. It’s hard to lighten the tone after your movie starts in a concentration camp and stumbles into the trenches.

Fiennes is a terrific actor who never gets to play the droll touch the movie desperately needed. Dickinson is rather lost in the scale of it all, not having the screen charisma to carry his share of the load.

Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou, as other enlistees (and servants) in “the service” just add to the whole asinine noblesse oblige of it all.

If the world learned nothing from that war and bloody century that followed, and apparently it learned little, it should have been that the rich and entitled classes made these messes and profited from them, with or without a little self-serving self-sacrifice on their part. And no comic book faked history — including well-staged archduke assassination attempts — can shake the gloom off that.

“King’s Man” doesn’t send up the tragic comedy of the start of The Great War, doesn’t rewrite history in any particularly interesting, illuminating or entertaining way. It just gets stuck in the mud, like the millions whose lives were squandered in it.

Only Rhys Ifans’ performance — silly, sinister and over-the-top — suggests that anyone involved “got the joke,” as it were.

Rating: R for sequences of strong/bloody violence, language, and some sexual material

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Harris Dickinson, Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode and Rhys Ifans.

Credits: Directed by Matthew Vaughn, scripted by Matthew Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek, based on the Mark Millar comic book. A 20th Century release.

Running time: 2:11

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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