The King’s Man

A few months ago, I was a guest on “The Popcorn Auteur” podcast, and we discussed director Matthew Vaughn. While we all agreed that his style and visual flare are distinctive enough to call him an auteur, not every one of his films was a hit with the hosts. I on the other hand, can safely say I have not been let down by a Matthew Vaughn film yet, and that winning streak continues with this third entry into the “Kingsman” cinema universe. On the Sunday podcast, my colleague James Wilson was not particularly forthcoming with his dislike of the film, maybe to spare my feelings, but I was not worried because I have faith in Vaughn and this time he did something else that pleased me, he surprised me. 

“The King’s Man” does have some of the outlandish action scenes that Vaughn is noted for, we will discuss those in a moment. Although ostensibly the genesis of the Kingsmen franchise, this film has several elements that are clearly different from the other films. To begin with, it focuses on a real conflict, not something invented by the authors. Vaugh and his collaborators do graft on a subplot that suggests that WWI was the result of manipulation by a secret cabal, much like SPECTRE, but masterminded by a shadowy figure referred to by acolytes as “The Shepard”. Historic figures like Mata Hari and Rasputin are then crossbred with the group to accomplish the machinations of the organization and bring the powers of Russia, Germany and Great Britain into conflict with one another. This retconning of history is fun because actual historical incidents and events are mixed with the fantasy of the film to create an interesting story. I hope that young people don’t fall for the idea that Woodrow Wilson was blackmailed as a reason for delaying U.S. entry into the war, that would be too easy an excuse for his behaviors.

Another way that the film feels different is the war context itself. The fight wit Rasputin is entertaining nonsense, but the realities of the battlefield in WWI make this film sometimes feel like an outtake from “1917” and that switch in tone is maybe the hardest element of the film to reconcile. As a drama segment it works well on it’s own but it does feel like a betrayal of the fun the film is trying to have with the outlandish premise that they have created. Tarantino was able to get away with this because the whole plot of “Inglorious Basterds” was at odds with reality.  I will say with a slight warning of a **spoiler**, there is a plot twist that is wholly consistent with the first movie and it changes the direction of the story in a striking moment. 

The fight sequences are the things that distinguish Vaughn’s films from others of his ilk. They are manically choregraphed and filmed in creative ways. The perspective in the battle with Rasputin for instance, changes on the moment of contact and then momentum. The fighters look like ballet dancers twisting in the air but with sudden changes in orientation that alter their strategic advantage moment to moment. In the sword fight at the climax of the film. the villain is revealed and a battle with our main hero takes place. There is an amazing shot of the crossed swords that is technically complicated and extremely beautiful, it lasts just a second but it also reflects the care that goes in to composing the fight scenes in a Vaughn film.  

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Orlando Oxford, adds dignity to the whole enterprise while also showing how he might have been a good choice for Bond back when Daniel Craig took over. His aristocratic air may have handicapped him in that choice but works perfectly in this context. Rhys Ifans plays Rasputin in a role that is really an extended cameo rather than a starring part, but he takes full advantage of the weird combination of mystic and barbarian, to outlandish effect. He has a couple of moments with Fiennes that are truly odd and hilarious at the same time. I am sure that his fighting skills are a combination of stunt work and CGI, but he nevertheless is the face of the character and one of the memorable things about the film. Daniel Brühl appears in a standard villain role as a parallel to Rasputin only in Germany. He is poised to come back if ever there is a continuation of the story as suggested by a mid-closing credits scene. Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance all do their parts to fill out the cast of the Kingsmen Service in one fashion or another. Tom Hollander gets to play multiple parts and that is fun for reasons that you will see when you watch the film.

I suppose I can understand why some are not enthusiastic about the film. It is highly stylized and the tonal changes are often not very smooth. On the other hand, the clever twisting of history to tie into the conceit of the story is just delicious and you get the signature action scenes that Vaughn is noted for, so I feel no need to apologize for my opinion, it was a great time at the movies. 

SPECTRE

In case you had not noticed over the last few weeks, I am a James Bond fan. I may even be an apologist, since I managed to find things to like in all the Bond films, even the ones at the bottom of my list. From a critical point of view, it’s best not to let your passions interfere with your judgement, but as someone who has listened to a lot of argument, I can tell you that passion often trumps good judgement. A thoughtful idea is often no match for an instance of visual gratification or nostalgic touch on ones memory. I can’t really pretend not to have a prejudice in regard to these films and everyone reading this should be forewarned, this is an opinion influenced by fifty years of conditioning.

[Spoiler Alert] A plot point is discussed in the next paragraph that might reveal more information than you want on characters in the film.


“SPECTRE” is a solid action film, with the requisite 007 tropes, and several terrific sequences.  It was very satisfying in my opinion, but it does not rise to the levels of greatness it’s predecessor achieved. That it suffers in part from that comparison is largely the fault of the screenwriters who found it necessary to inject every Daniel Craig Bond film with a continuing story line concept. “Skyfall” is the Craig version of our hero with the least degree of attachment to the previous films, and one of the reasons it works is the stand alone nature of the script. “SPECTRE” reaches into the grave to pull a thread that suddenly becomes the link between all of these stories. There is an intriguing idea in having the greatest threat to humanity and humanities greatest protector be connected in  a very essential way, but it strains the story to make it work in the quick way it has to develop. “The Ten Commandments”, “East of Eden” and “Thor” all explore the same territory but manage to do it with more aplomb than can be mustered here. There is not enough time to go into Bond’s history again, and then make him the “Good Twin”. 


That having been said, let’s talk about the stuff that makes the movie worth your time and money. The Bond girl in this film is a bright psychologist who is half Bond’s age. She is also fairly self sufficient when it comes to some of the action bits. Léa Seydoux is a blonde innocent trapped in a world of venomous manipulators. The fact that she becomes part of the story is a result of one of those threads I mentioned before, being tugged at in a pretty effective scene. A recurring character is a victim of Polonium type poisoning, and his only desire is to protect his daughter. James is traditionally  a misogynist in the chauvinistic style of the past. He dismisses women and he treasures them simultaneously. The writers give Madeleine Swann enough to do to make her not be an impediment that Bond must drag around for the last third of the film. They do however fall back on the oldest of story telling shortcuts in modern suspense films and it is a bit tired.  Daniel Craig’s James Bond has been on a train before, but usually on the outside getting a beating as the scenery passes. In this film, his character finally gets to appreciate the romantic elements of train travel that made previous  versions of Bond so happy. Of course he does get the beating as well. 


Three characters get used more in this film than they have in previous films. “M” is a player in the story and not just a spear holder as as so often been the case. This is a continuation from the previous film that is welcomed. The political angle of the story is an opportunity for “M” to do something not just say things that advance the plot. Ralph Fiennes might have played Bond twenty years ago, now he is well cast as the civilized version of espionage, that the world will see. “Q” is the resident geek who gets a chance to make choices that will give Bond the ability to act more freely than he might have, and “Q” gets to work in the field a bit more as a consequence. Moneypenny is the least used character, but she does ultimately get out from behind the desk or computer and helps out as well. These are all improvements that a Bond fan like me will be glad for. They were the kinds of things I anticipated at the end of the last outing.  

Now when I saw a year ago that the title of the new film was going to be “SPECTRE” , it was inevitable that the head of that criminal organization would return in this re-booted universe. There was not really any doubt that Christoph Waltz was going to be that character. If there were a grand plan that the organization was responsible for and Bond was sent to stop it, I’d have been alright with that. As it is, we have a more insidious plot that draws on recent films to make us doubt our allies and ourselves. The paranoia factor is ratcheted up so high, it makes the quislings of Quantum seem like pikers. As it turns out, they and every other foe that our current version of Bond has faced end up being tied together in an unnecessary complication of previous plots.  Yet somehow, with the stakes as high as they are, it feels like this is a showdown between figures that really have not had a relationship before. The story tries to build a background but it is under done and unsatisfying. There are still some sequences though that make the mano a mano approach work anyway. When Bond boldly enters into a meeting trying to pass himself off as a member of the organization, the shadowy image and disembodied voice work at building some suspense and tension. There is also a good scene back in London, late in the film , which contains the viciousness of the organization and it’s leader quite well. The scene of torture in the desert is a bit anti-climactic but it turns out to be the penultimate confrontation rather than the final one, thank goodness. 

Waltz does not get as much screen time or character development as a villain probably needs. Le Chiffre and Silva in the two highwater marks of this iteration of Bond were the models of that kind of storytelling. Here it all relies on moods and asserted links to previous actions to make Waltz the bad guy. When he finally acquires a signature feature of the character, I thought the real plot was kicking in, unfortunately, this takes place in the last fifteen minutes of the movie. So the challenge that Bond usually faces is the formidable substitute, Mr. Hinx. David Bautista is a modern version of “Oddjob” or “Jaws”. He is relentless, tough and resilient. He also has enough charisma to pull off the silent role and get away with having a single verbal line in the film. Although Bond ultimately prevails over his enemies, they may not be down for the count permanently. I’d be fine with that as long as the story were more direct and the pacing a bit stronger.

All of this criticism might make you think I did not like the film, as I’ve already said, far from it, I enjoyed the heck out of it.

This is the unique ticket I bought from Regal Entertainment, it entitles me to admission to see “SPECTRE” every day that that it plays in a Regal theater. They only sold 1000 of them across the country, so it is a unusual souvenir and a threat to the financial foundations of that company, because I plan on using it a lot. The opening scene by itself might be worth a visit or two. There is a really solid car chase through Rome that provides some thrills and a couple of the humorous beats that a Bond film should have. The fight scene on the train is another few minutes that make a return visit worthwhile.  

I don’t care much for the Opening Song, it seems to lack a melody and there is never much drive to it. I have learned over the years though that some things can grow on you and I finally appreciate the Chris Cornell song from Casino Royale” so maybe this will work it’s way into a more favorable status down the road. The “Day of the Dead” setting in Mexico City was visually interesting and the lonely trek through the Austrian Alps to try and track down a lead was a solid moment of loneliness. There were some aspects of the secret desert lair that were also interesting, so I can say that the movie looks great. I just think it needs to be a bit tighter, and it would have benefited from starting a fresh adventure rather than dragging in parts of the past few films. Monica Bellucci was hailed as a breakthrough in casting a mature woman as a counterpart to Bond, but her part is brief . It did have an awkward sexual element to it but there was also the most sensual image of the film in one of her scenes so if you are a fan it might be worth it to you but it was frustrating that she was gone so soon. 

 

I may come back and offer a different view of the film, maybe after the tenth trip I take on my dime and Regal’s foolishness. For now let’s just say 007 fans will be satisfied and the world is safe for a couple of more years.