“Welcome to the club,” pipes up Polly, Gemma Arterton’s more-than-meets-the-eye maid in The King’s Man. That ‘club’ is the gentleman spy agency first seen in Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic series before reaching the screen in Matthew Vaughn’s present-day-set hits Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) and the somewhat less effective Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017).
With Vaughn still in the saddle, The King’s Man takes us back to the early 20th century, around the time of World War I, and the formation of this secret society. In an echo of the Colin Firth/Taron Edgerton master spy/keen protégé relationship, the story centres on Orlando Oxford, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), who brings his 17-year-old son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) into the fold a few years after the shock loss of the lad’s mother.
Also in the ‘club’ is Djimon Hounsou’s muscular man-servant Shola, who is soon getting Conrad up to speed. The outfit’s mission – should they choose to accept it – is to stop a cabal of crazies, led by a ruthless mystery man known only as The Shepherd, who remains in the shadows every time he’s on screen as he conducts his bloody business from a near-impregnable mountaintop hideaway (a classic baddie lair; clearly, Fiennes’ presence isn’t the only Bond nod here).
The real fun of The King’s Man comes from the script (by Vaughn and Oblivion’s Karl Gajdusek) playing fast and loose with world history. Famous figures are sprinkled throughout the plot; no less than three of them are played by Tom Hollander, having a blast as cousins King George, the Tsar of Russia and the Kaiser of Germany.
Even more entertaining is Rhys Ifans, who kicks ass and steals every scene as Russia’s very own mad monk, the bearded Rasputin, taking centre stage in a stunning fight sequence with Oxford and son. Much like with Firth in the original movie, it’s fantastic to see Fiennes take on the sort of action role he normally sidesteps for others to perform. It’s like watching M finally come out from behind his desk and go all 007 on us.
There’s a slow, awkward opening stretch, where the film is still finding its tone. But before long, Vaughn is ripping up the rule book when it comes to period movies. Offering some mighty fine set-pieces, including a stomach-churning aerial sequence, The King’s Man is anything but old-fashioned. It’s a right royal riot.
The King's Man is in US theaters from December 22 and UK cinemas from December 26. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.