Is it because it’s been vegetating on the shelves of Disney for two years already that The King’s Man: First Mission has a little aftertaste of stale bread? Not inedible, far from it … But clearly without the freshness of the two previous opus, relics of an old pre-Covid world where blockbusters were released on time, without exceeding their expiration date. Postponed no less than seven times since its initial release window (November 8, 2019), both for health reasons and to make room for priority blockbusters from the parent company Disney, The King’s Man: First Mission is therefore finally being deployed in theaters this December 29.
Still in the middle of filming his next feature film (the thriller Argylle with Henry Cavill as a super-spy, hey, hey!) During our remote conversation, the British director Matthew Vaughn himself has the feeling of a settled case. for far too long: “I shot The King’s Man: First Mission three years ago and I haven’t even taken the time to see it in a movie theater. I’m glad it finally gets out, thanks to Disney for reserving it for the movies, but I’m shooting something else, and it’s so weird… Time has gone by so fast. Unfortunately for Vaughn, his film is released in a context of unprecedented pandemic worsening which may well burn his attendance (thank you Omicron), while in the United States, his theatrical career turns sour … Whenever it wants not, that does not want!
Rasputin, Lenin and Mata Hari are in a plot …
Gloomy atmosphere therefore and, in fact, the result of The King’s Man: First Mission is curiously reminiscent of the last reboot of Ghostbusters: we summon the recipes of the past while changing the scenery (here, rather period since King’s Man is a prequel located at the dawn of the twentieth century), but forgetting to add before cooking the humor and good humor that were the salt of the first shutters. Despite some appreciable qualities, the tale leaves the impression of a concept already at the end of its race, with a bastard flavor and which has undoubtedly waited too long to be served. It started off rather well with a grandiose introduction worthy of Lawrence of Arabia, located in South Africa in 1902 where, in the midst of the Boer War, Duke Orlando of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) helplessly witnessed the assassination by a sniper of his wife in a camp of the Red Cross. Just before dying, the unfortunate woman makes him promise to always protect their child, Conrad.
Twelve years later, as global tensions threaten to escalate into generalized conflict, Orlando forbids his son from engaging in the military. But an obscure plot beginning with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria, in Sarajevo, starts the war … A plot orchestrated from the Scottish moor by a mysterious shepherd, surrounded among others by Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), Lenin ( August Diehl), Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner) and the illusionist Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl). The Duke of Oxford and his staunch allies Shola (Djimon Hounsou) and Polly (Gemma Arterton) will lay the foundations for the Kingsman agency to defeat the organization, leading Conrad on their journey.
We cannot blame Matthew Vaughn and his screenwriter for having lacked ambition and tried to take an original path for the saga: that of uchronia located in the middle of the First World War, in the service of a pacifist message. but sometimes flirting a little too closely with conspiracy. An aspect of the script which also made Ralph Fiennes tick at first: “Reading the screenplay, I was worried that this somewhat anarchist humor and this comic approach to violence would be out of place in the context of the tragic loss of life. of the First World War. But I think Matthew managed to respect the notion of mourning and that trauma and that there is just a very strong rhetoric in the film about the notion of sacrifice. We never laugh at the loss and the suffering. ”
It is true and it is also the problem of this schizophrenic King’s Man, torn between, on the one hand, the DNA of schoolboy and saucy humor of his predecessors and, on the other hand, a realistic violence and a seriousness. worthy of Sam Mendes’ 1917 during the long interlude in the trenches. Under the crust of entertainment, Vaughn slipped several seeds of pacifism, but the two flavors seem to coexist more than blend harmoniously into the dough. In the film, King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II, all played by the same unrecognizable actor (Tom Hollander), are presented as three immature and impulsive adults (especially the last two, of course) , never freed from their childhood rivalries. Tensions on which the big bad of the film – a completely imaginary character – to orchestrate the global explosion for ends never really clear in the narrative.
Lover of uchronies – in X-Men: The Beginning, in 2011, he already presented the Cuban missile crisis as a plot fomented by bad mutants – Matthew Vaughn, however, denies playing too lightly with History and flatter the conspiratorial spirit: “I am passionate about history and there is a lot to learn from the First World War, why and how it started, and how it should help us better choose our leaders. Look at the world in which The King’s Man emerges: the pandemic, the threats linked to new technologies, the tensions with Russia around the Ukraine, with China around Taiwan… We have the impression of being on the edge again of the war ! The resonances of this very European King’s Man with our tormented present are undoubtedly to his credit and, above all, historians will be amused – or annoyed – at the many other tricks Vaughn found to intertwine fiction with fact (and especially the case of the Zimmermann telegram), until the final credits.
But between several ellipses and a frumpy stake, this rambling film seems to lose its focus several times, including when it goes too far into the tragedy. The boredom remains fortunately confined, thanks to a few action scenes with panache of which Matthew Vaughn has the secret, including the memorable brawl in Russia between Oxford, Conrad, Shola and Rasputin, framed by a camera twirling to the rhythm of the Solemn Opening 1812 by Tchaikovsky. The spectacular and wacky finale at the top of a Scottish cliff does not disappoint either in its scale and virtuosity, while Ralph Fiennes proves to be as good at the elegance of the noble Orlando as at shootouts, saber duels or tussles with a ram (you’ll see…). Often framed head to toe in a most fitting wardrobe, Fiennes evokes a Victorian version of John Steed, the classy secret agent with the umbrella and the invincible phlegm of Bowler Hat and leather boots. A similarity on which the actor deliberately played, aware that he still drags the role of Steed, which he played, in 1998, in a disastrous film adaptation of the legendary sixties series.
Remember (or not!): It was with Uma Thurman as Emma Peel and Sean Connery as villain. The affair was a flop and the laughing stock of critics: Fiennes can laugh about it in turn today, but the odd cost him dearly and his career did not really regain its luster until 2005 with the magnificent The Constant Gardener by Fernando Meirelles. “Yes, I was unfortunate enough to play in that unfortunate version of Bowler Hat…, which turned out to be a huge turnip and a huge personal disappointment. I saw The King’s Man as a revenge and a second chance to reinvest in this figure of the swashbuckling gentleman, the quiet man who doesn’t show off until he draws his sword. I also thought a lot about Spencer Tracy in John Sturges’ A Man Is Past. »The shadow of the past hangs decidedly over The King’s Man: First Mission located a century before the adventures of young Eggsy (Taron Egerton), hero of the first two opus and who will indeed return for an official Kingsman 3, whose filming will debut in the fall of 2022. We compared The King’s Man to stale bread at the start of this column, and we may have had a bit of a hard tooth. Let’s stay good dough: Despite its uneven flavor, this blockbuster catch-all is far from a crust and, in its first mission, entertainment, it does honorably.