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film review

Djimon Hounsou as Shola and Ralph Fiennes as Oxford in The King’s Man.Courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

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The King’s Man

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Written by Matthew Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Harris Dickinson and Rhys Ifans

Classification R; 131 minutes

Opens in theatres Dec. 22

If you would like to spend your Christmas break Googling, “Did Rasputin conspire to kill Archduke Ferdinand?” and “Woodrow Wilson sex tape” and “Ralph Fiennes Rhys Ifans wound-licking scene,” then boy howdy, do I ever have the movie for you.

A tonally wild and historically, um, loose First World War thriller, The King’s Man arrives as a head-scratching mess of bewildering ambition and outrageous style. Fashioned as a prequel to director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman franchise, itself based on Mark Millar’s ultraviolent comic book, The King’s Man doesn’t require knowledge of the previous two films to understand its central conceit: Only Britain’s ultrawealthy aristocrats, operating in secret, can bring peace and order to a world hobbled by psychopaths and bureaucrats.

Gemma Arterton as Polly in The King’s Man.Courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Vaughn’s first entry, 2014′s Kingsman: The Secret Service, embraced that distasteful premise with a self-aware perversity, producing a wild, reckless, gleefully juvenile blast of pop nihilism. It was hard to watch a scene of a dapper Colin Firth shooting Red State extremists in the head to the score of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird and not be impressed by Vaughn’s commitment to the bit. Matters went downhill, though, with 2017′s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a sequel hobbled by bigger, louder, stupider expectations.

The King’s Man rewinds things back in terms of timeline (it opens with the Second Boer War, and ends on the final days of the First World War), but continues to make the same mistakes as The Golden Circle, cramming in so much unnecessary stuff that the film crumbles in half. Indeed, Vaughn seems to have made two movies at the same time: a slick franchise-friendly prequel and a gnarly riff on Sam Mendes’ 1917, or maybe even Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front. It is never boring, but it is also never remotely consistent in its sensibilities and vision.

First, the good: Ralph Fiennes gets a lot of action-hero screen time as the Duke of Oxford, a super-rich pacifist who gets wrapped up in the First World War along with his teenage son Conrad (Harris Dickinson). While Fiennes must spit out dialogue crammed with exposition and this-is-the-theme-right-here monologues, the actor makes for a solid midlife butt-kicker in the Liam Neeson mould.

The King’s Man rewinds things in terms of timeline, but continues to make the same mistakes as The Golden Circle, cramming in so much unnecessary stuff that the film crumbles.Courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Also impressive, in a completely different way: Rhys Ifans, who makes as many extreme acting choices as Grigori Rasputin. Ifans plays the infamous Russian mystic/instigator as a carnival barker gone mad, all clucks and bug-eyes. When Ifans and Fiennes meet midway through the film, for a scene that I can only describe as being balletically bonkers, The King’s Man feels genuinely, dangerously alive. (Bonus points, too, for Vaughn not succumbing to temptation by adding Boney M to the soundtrack.)

But then, in a jarring and depressing tonal shift, the film veers into dead-serious territory, with Conrad determined to head to the front lines of the war, and the Duke tasked with defusing a nefarious global conspiracy that might not go over too well with Scottish audiences. It is all too much and not enough, and by the time that Vaughn deploys his big third-act reveal – which resulted in me actually whispering under my breath/inside my mask, “Who’s that again?” – you’ll have not only lost the plot, but also discovered another, better movie playing inside your own head.

Once the The King’s Man becomes available digitally, though, do yourself a favour and search for that “Ifans Fiennes licking” scene, which will surely be clipped and memed for the duration of both men’s careers. It is the only taste of Vaughn’s film that you will require.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.