I can see why this is disappointing some people. It’s marketed with videos like this while following up on the anarchic insanity of the first two movies, and yet it’s not really like that for the bulk of its running time. In addition, the movie does have elements of the craziness, but they never really gel with what came before while also clashing on some level with everything around them. The bulk of the film is decidedly different, a surprisingly sober look at how World War I affected the British psyche. So, yeah, the people expecting just straight up Kingsman 3 aren’t going to be all that happy and people open to more mature takes on The Great War are going to find issue as well. I think the marriage is somewhat uncomfortable, and yet I still ended up loving the overall product.
During the Boer War, Orlando, Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes) brings Red Cross supplies to a British concentration camp run by General Kitchener (Charles Dance), bringing his wife and son along. When she is killed by a sniper, she extracts a promise from him to never let their son see war again. A dozen years pass, and young Conrad (Harris Dickinson) has grown into a young man, sheltered on his father’s estate, refused even the ability to visit his cousin in Czar Nicholas II’s court in Russia. Conrad lets his father know that he can’t protect him forever, but Orlando will not let go of his promise to his deceased wife.
Meanwhile, the world is heading towards war, a situation that a mysterious Scottish-accented figure who is creating a group of people to help sow chaos with the ultimate goal of unseating the British monarch, George V (Tom Hollander) by pitting him against King Wilhelm of Germany (Tom Hollander) and Nicholas (er…also Tom Hollander, since they’re cousins), taking advantage of their childish rivalries. In Russia, he uses the mad monk Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) to control the Czar, Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Bruhl) to Germany to control that Kaiser, and Gavrilo Princip (Joel Basman) to Sarajevo to assassinate the Archduke Ferdinand to set off a series of events that will certainly lead to war, considering the alliances in place and the leaders at top. This is one of the most interesting things about the film, its embrace of real history in trying to tell this story of how a silly fake secret agency came into being. The silly fakery gets weaved in and out of actual historical events, and its surprisingly well done. First was the Boer War, and then Orlando accepts an invitation from Ferdinand to go hunting outside of Sarajevo. On their car ride, Conrad knocks aside the bomb Princip throws at the car, and they flee.
And then, portraying the event mostly as it happened, Ferdinand made a speech and went out driving again, completely coincidentally happening upon Princip again, sitting at a café, where Princip takes the opportunity to pull out his gun and shoot the Archduke and his wife dead with Orlando and Conrad in the car and helping to capture Princip after the fact. It’s one of those things that if a writer had made it up, it’d be considered unbelievable and dismissed out of hand by most audiences. However, since it actually kind of happened that way, the audience is able to accept truth as simply stranger than fiction.
War breaks out, and our mysterious antagonist wants Nicholas to pull out of the war so that Germany can focus all of its efforts on the Western Front, destroying England in the end, so he sends Rasputin with the mission of convincing Nicholas of pulling out. Orlando decides that he must do something after Conrad receives a message from his Russian cousin that he shares with Kitchener, and he goes with Conrad to Russia to kill Rasputin. It’s about here where the movie becomes the Kingsman movie ads promise. Rasputin is an over the top villain, snarling, growling, and insulting everyone around him while holding the Russian nobility in his power. After he figures out that the almond tart Orlando offers to him as a gift is laced with cyanide (which he devours and then vomits up), we get our first real Kingsman action scene where Conrad and Orlando’s African servant Shola (Djimon Hounsou) fight the ever-twirling Russian monk, only ending after several stab wounds and a drowning fail to kill him and Conrad’s nanny Polly (Gemma Arterton) puts a bullet in his brain.
Then the movie calms down again, and it gets shockingly sober. Conrad is now old enough to join up in the army without his father’s consent, so he goes. Orlando uses his friendship with Kitchener and the king to ensure that Conrad will not see combat. Lieutenant Conrad switches places with Lance Corporal Archie Reid (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and goes into combat himself, accepting the mission to go into No Man’s Land to save a British spy who had been shot down when trying to cross over to the British lines. What follows is the most grounded piece of action in the film as two small groups of enemies meet in No Man’s Land and agree to engage in hand to hand combat to prevent the noise that would attract fire from the opposing trenches. It’s a nasty, brutish fight with knives that Conrad barely survives, eventually leading to him finding the British spy and insisting on carrying him over to the lines, not just with the intelligence he has. This is Conrad earning his Victoria Cross, and it ends in just about the most perfect way an act of heroism can end in World War I. Pointlessly.
Really, this film’s sober assessment of the death of a generation of potentially great British men is fantastic. There’s a depth of emotion here that actually had me going. I never got choked up at Colin Firth getting a bullet in the first film or him coming back in the second, but I got choked up here.
The final act is really about Orlando finishing up the business of the war by finding the original negatives of a piece of blackmail keeping the US President Woodrow Wilson (Ian Kelly) from entering the war on the side of the English. News of Germany’s efforts to get Mexico to declare war on America didn’t work, his insistence that actual proof, not an intercepted telegram, needed to be offered up, but only as cover for the fact that Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner) seduced him on camera. Orlando goes to the remote hideaway of our antagonist, given away by the very rare cashmere scarf Mata Hari wears, and the movie becomes that Kingsman movie again with parachuting onto a high plateau, fighting over a rickety and hand-powered elevator, sword fights, gun fights, explosions, beheadings, and falls from great heights. Yeah…it doesn’t quite fit the more somber look at WWI as the rest. There’s a clash for sure. It’s entertaining, but it doesn’t quite fit with the rest.
The rock on which all of this is built is Fiennes as the Duke of Oxford. He provides a marvelous gravitas and believability to the central role. The supporting cast around him is well-done as well. Dickinson as his son is the wide-eyed youth who would jump into a war to do what he must do. Hollander is quite a bit of fun as Wilhelm, surprisingly grounded as George, and borderline insane as Nicholas. Ifans is absolutely insane as Rasputin, essentially stealing the show for a time.
I do love the film, but there are messy bits about that I have to address. A lot of the feeling of mess is brought on by the fact that Vaughn and his co-writer Karl Gajdusek try to follow the history so closely. If I were to come up with a metaphor, it would be like taking a large painting, overlaying a clear sheet, and drawing a story onto the sheet that needs to be followed from one side to the other. The viewing is dominated by the background painting, but the story is actually there in the foreground, providing a structure that the painting itself doesn’t share. There are three acts, but the history kind of hides them. The first is the build up to action, the second is the involvement of the actual war, and the third is the characters ending of the conflict with personal growth at the same time.
It also has an uncomfortable balance between attacking the idea of nobly dying for one’s country while also having our main characters go to war to defend the existing order of the country, to prevent Britain from falling into a revolution like what happens in Russia. There’s an embrace of the idea that the old world order was both corrupt and needed to be preserved that it never quite finds a way around (kind of a common problem with movies that have world-hating bad guys). Also, the bad guy’s identity being masked for so long, until the final fight starts, is protecting a twist that’s not at all that hard to figure out and just kind of bugs me.
So, no, this film isn’t perfect, but I still ended up kind of loving it. 2/3 of it is a great look at World War I, and 1/3 of it is a crazy action movie with some detritus in between. It’s a mixed bag, but one that I really embrace.