The “Kingsman” movies are, like so much else in theaters these days, based on a comic book. But the agents working for this independent spy organization have never looked so much like superheroes as does Ralph Fiennes in the latest installment, “The King’s Man.”
The movie-goer is in familiar territory here. The story — with its Don Delillo meets Archie Andrews use of historic personages — almost never refuses an opportunity to do what we expect. What is kind of interesting about it is that it has four movements.
The film begins with the introduction of Fiennes as the do-gooding Duke of Oxford. In 1902, working on a Red Cross mission in South Africa, he sees his wife shot by a Boer who seems to be aiming to kill Gen. Kitchener (Charles Dance), the first of the figures from history. This is also only the first time in this movie that one person takes a bullet intended for someone else.
The second movement is about the growing-up of the Duke’s only child, Conrad. He is treated to a suit from the Saville Row tailor shop after which the series is named. Then he is taken, at Kitchener’s behalf, to Russia to help his father kill Rasputin. The mad monk is played gleefully by Rhys Ifans, our old friend from ‘The Replacements,” “Notting Hill,” and one Harry Potter film as well as from CBS’s series “Elementary.”
As with the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand, Rasputin’s death scene features enough historic detail to suggest that director and co-writer Matthew Vaughn knew what actually happened. He just wants to make fantasy of the truth.
During the third movement, he actually refers back to the World War I trench warfare movies of the last ten years. We might call this section “Conrad’s Enlistment.” Then the film refers back to early Bond movies in its last section, when the trio of agency founders goes to an impossibly tall mesa to have the purpose of a vast, evil conspiracy explained for us.
Oxford is assisted by two servants (one of whom he kisses, though that’s the only bit of heterosexual affection showed in the movie). Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou are recognizable stars, and they help bring the story to a close.
There is considerable action throughout the film, including more sword fighting than we’ve seen in a movie since “My Favorite Year.” The action is well-filmed and exciting. And the film’s late reliance on our acrophobia produces dandy suspense.
And while one comes away from the movie admiring Fiennes and the clothes and the movie’s cheekiness about things historical, one mostly remembers Ifans’s daringly goosed-up Rasputin.
It is interesting that the film’s story makes so much of the Tsar, the Kaiser, and the English King being cousins that it leaves France out of the discussion of the war altogether. Renault-land isn’t even mentioned as a setting.
America appears in the form of blackmailed President Woodrow Wilson. But here the script strays farther from the truth than usual. Wilson is famous for being a racist who hid his illness from the world, not someone who hid his private sexual misconduct from the American public.
No, the use of historic people in fiction is fraught with peril partly because it is so difficult to maintain the same extent to which the new treatment alters fact. Somehow, though, “The King’s Man” manages to maintain our interest despite all sorts of theoretical weaknesses. It has enough zots to make us willing to suspend our disbelief for its two hours of running time.