Review: ‘The King’s Man,’ starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Harris Dickinson and Djimon Hounsou

December 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Harris Dickinson and Ralph Fiennes in “The King’s Man” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The King’s Man”

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United Kingdom and Russia from 1902 to the late 1910s, the action film “The King’s Man” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: Orlando Oxford (a British former military man also known as the Duke of Oxford) and some allies, including his son Conrad, battle villains led by evil Russian monk Grigori Rasputin.

Culture Audience: “The King’s Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ralph Fiennes, the “Kingsman” movies and poorly written action flicks.

Ralph Fiennes, Djimon Hounsou, Harris Dickinson and Gemma Arterton in “The King’s Man” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The King’s Man” is a charmless prequel that’s messier than the unkempt beard and head of hair on Rasputin, the movie’s flashiest villain. Even with a talented cast, this origin story to the “Kingsman” movies gets bogged down in a jumbled plot and cringeworthy dialogue. And for an action movie, much of “The King’s Man” is downright dull.

“The King’s Man” is the precursor story of 2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and 2017’s inferior sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” which are all about a secret spy agency led by Brits. Matthew Vaughn directed and co-wrote all three movies, which are all based on the comic book series “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbon.

Audiences don’t have to see “Kingsman: The Secret Service” or “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” to understand “The King’s Man.” In fact, seeing “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” will just prove how “The King’s Man” is such a witless disappointment in comparison. If you only care about explosions and fight scenes that are too choreographed to be believable, then you might find “The King’s Man” entertaining. But if you care about having an interesting storyline and engaging characters along with thrilling action, then “The King’s Man” will leave you bored or annoyed.

Vaughn and Jane Goldman co-wrote “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” For “The King’s Man” screenplay, Vaughn teamed up with Karl Gajdusek, which might explain why the quality of “The King’s Man” is worse than the movies that Vaughn wrote with Goldman. Gajdusek’s other movie screenplay credits includes stinkers such as 2011’s “Trespass” and 2020’s “The Last Days of American Crime.” The screenplay for “The King’s Man” is definitely the worst part of the movie.

“The King’s Man” tries to disguise how weak the plot is by tangling it up with more subplots and by introducing useless characters. “The King’s Man” also tries to look smarter than it really is by throwing in real-life historical figures into the mix. But all of these gimmicks cannot hide the gross stupidity of so many aspects of “The King’s Man,” which is nothing but a bloated over-indulgence in period set pieces and big-budget stunts that are just smoke and mirrors for a lackluster story.

The basic story, which takes place from 1902 to the late 1910s, is that wealthy nobleman Orlando Oxford (played by Ralph Fiennes), also known as the Duke of Oxford, is a military-officer-turned-pacifist, who finds himself caught up in a lot of violence and political machinations leading up to World War I. To make matters worse for Orlando, his young adult son Conrad (played by Harris Dickinson) wants to enlist as a soldier to fight during the war, much to Orlando’s objections.

The movie opens during the Boer War in 1902, when Orlando (who’s representing the Red Cross) is visiting a concentration camp in South Africa with other military officials. Traveling with him in the car are Orlando’s wife Emily Oxford (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) and Conrad at about 8 or 9 years old (played by Alexander Shaw), who wait in the car while Orlando goes to meet with the people in charge of the concentration camp.

The movie is so badly written, it never explains why Orlando brought his family into this dangerous situation. During the ride to this concentration camp, Emily tells Conrad about the legendary Knights of the Round Table. She also talks about how privileged people must share their power and that the knights’ round table equals equality.

When you visit a concentration camp and you bring your spouse and underage child with you, don’t expect good things to happen. And sure enough, there’s a shootout that results in Emily getting shot and killed in front of Orlando and Conrad. Orlando’s loyal bodyguard Shola (played by Djimon Hounsou) stabs and kills the shooter, but it’s too late to save Emily. Emily’s dying words to Orlando are: “Protect our son. Promise he’ll never see war again.”

Two other military men were also caught up in this tragic shootout: Lord Kitchener (played by Charles Dance) and his right-hand man Maximillian Morton (played by Matthew Goode), who is a trusted soldier. Lord Kitchener gets shot but not killed. Unlike Orlando, Lord Kitchener does not become a pacifist after this incident. (The Lord Kitchener character is based on the real-life Herbert Kitchener, the British Army officer who later became the U.K.’s secretary of state for war.)

The movie then fast-forwards about 12 years later. Orlando has left the military and is an over-protective father to Conrad, who has led a very sheltered life. As a young man, Conrad is getting restless. Conrad wants to experience life outside of the confines of his family’s lavish estate, but Orlando is reluctant to let Conad experience the real world, and Orlando constantly fears for Conrad’s safety. Conrad has gotten an invitation from his cousin Felix Yusupov (played by Aaron Vodovoz) to visit Felix in Russia, but Orlando won’t allow Conrad to go.

The United Kingdom is on the verge of getting involved in World War I, and Orlando is firm on being an outspoken pacificist. When he takes Conrad to the Kingsman Tailor Shop on London’s Savile Row to get fitted for a new suit, Orlando tells Conrad that he wants the both of them to lead very different lives from their ancestors. Orlando describes their forebears as “tough and ruthless” brutes, who conquered and pillaged their way to power.

Orlando and Conrad have a sassy housekeeper named Polly Watkins (played by Gemma Arterton), who says things to Orlando such as: “I’ll play by your rules, if you play by mine.” “The King’s Man” is yet another action movie where the people who get top billing are several men and one token woman. And the movie has the sexist trope that this token female character can’t be around these men unless she’s a love interest of one of the men.

Therefore, you know where this is going when “The King’s Man” makes it obvious that Polly’s snappy remarks to Orlando are just her way of flirting with him and testing how he’ll react to her. It takes a while for Orlando to catch on to Polly’s romantic interest in him. And there’s a formulaic soap opera subplot when this would-be romance hits a very big snag.

Of course, there would be no “King’s Man” movie if Orlando and Conrad led a peaceful and tranquil life. Orlando, Conrad, Shola and Polly get caught up in a series of events where they become a four-person combat team fighting off various villains, many of whom are real-life historical figures.

These rogues have meetings around a table in a dark, dungeon-type of room, where Russian monk Grigori Rasputin (played by Rhys Ifans) leads the discussions. But there’s a mysterious mastermind who’s seen in the shadows during these meetings. And this person is the one who’s really calling the shots. (The movie eventually reveals who this mastermind is.) Also part of this rogue’s gallery are Dutch spy Mata Hari (played by Valerie Pachner) and Austrian con artist Erik Jan Hanussen (played by Daniel Brühl).

One of the movie’s few highlights is in how it pokes fun at real-life rivalries of royal cousins King George of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia. All three roles are played by Tom Hollander, who does a very good job at balancing comedy and drama in his performances. However, the movie’s attempts at having high-minded “history lessons” are just drowned in an avalanche of silly conversations and convoluted plot twists that aren’t very clever.

The movie also goes off on a weird and unnecessary tangent when it fixates on Rasputin’s reputation of being a hedonistic libertine. At first, Rasputin’s insults are mild. When he first meets Orlando and Conrad, he asks them, based on how Orlando and Conrad are dressed: “Are you waiters or Englishmen?”

Later, Rasputin ramps up the sex talk by saying, “I only make a decision when my belly is full and my balls are empty.” And then he says to Orlando, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think your son is trying to fuck me.” Orlando replies, “Knowing your reputation, I’d think you’re trying to fuck him.”

And the homoerotic innuendos continue. After Orlando gets a leg wound, Rasputin says to him, “Let me lick your wounds.” Rasputin then flicks his tongue on Orlando’s leg wound in a sexually suggestive manner. The filmmakers go overboard in making their point that Rasputin is supposed to be some kind of sexual predator.

But really, it’s all just a badly written and awkward-looking attempt at making audiences laugh at the idea that a straight guy like Orlando is supposed to be uncomfortable at male sexuality that isn’t heterosexual. And why is it that the only possibly queer character in this movie has to be a villain? It’s really just homophobic filmmaking that’s incredibly tone-deaf and outdated, much like many other aspects of his dumb film.

“The King’s Man” fails in much of its comedy, but the dramatic scenes aren’t much better. That leaves the action to possibly salvage the film, but the movie falls short in that area too. There are obvious stunt doubles and distracting CGI effects in too many of the action scenes.

The movie’s production design and costume design are actually two things that make “The King’s Man” enjoyable to look at on a superficial level. However, the movie’s tone veers from having slapstick-type goofy comedy to trying to be an intense and serious spy thriller. Ultimately, “The King’s Man” is a movie prequel that makes the “Kingsman” franchise look stuck in an unimaginative rut that’s in desperate need of fresh and new ideas.

20th Century Studios released “The King’s Man” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2021.

Review: ‘A Quiet Place Part II,’ starring Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe and Djimon Hounsou

May 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe and Emily Blunt in “A Quiet Place Part II” (Photo by Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures)

“A Quiet Place Part II”

Directed by John Krasinski

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state and unnamed parts of the U.S. East Coast during a post-apolcalyptic time period, the horror sequel “A Quiet Place Part II” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widow and her three underage children try to survive giant lizard-like monsters that have taken over Earth, but her eldest child decides to run away from their shelter to find other survivors. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of people who saw 2018’s “A Quiet Place,” the sequel “A Quiet Place Part II” will appeal to people who are interested in watching suspenseful “creature feature” horror films that aren’t too gory.

Cillian Murphy in “A Quiet Place Part II” (Photo by Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures)

“A Quiet Place Part II” (written and directed by John Krasinski) doesn’t fall into the sequel trap of recycling too much of the same story as its predecessor, but it definitely helps to see the first “A Quiet Place” movie, which was released in 2018. “A Quiet Place Part II” is a more action-oriented thriller than “A Quiet Place,” because so much of the horror in “A Quiet Place Part II” is happening at different locations at the same time. Thanks to skillful film editing from Michael P. Shawver, “A Quiet Place Part II” viewers will often feel like they’re in a dimension where they can experience what’s going on in more than one place simultaenously, as the tension ramps up in each scene.

It’s a big contrast to “A Quiet Place,” which focused on one location at a time, during one family’s fight for survival in an apocalyptic world where giant lizard-mutant-looking aliens have taken over Earth. In “A Quiet Place,” viewers aren’t shown what life for this family was like before the apocalypse. But it’s eventually revealed that the creatures that have invaded Earth and massacred most of the world’s humans are blind and can’t smell but have an extremely acute sense of hearing. Therefore, when outside, apocalypse survivors have to be very quiet because any sound can attract the alien monsters, which show no mercy in devouring any living being.

“A Quiet Place Part II” was made with the assumption that most people seeing the movie have already seen “A Quiet Place” or know what the movie is about, including the spoiler information. This sequel is best appreciated with full knowledge of these details, or else viewers might initially feel a little bit lost or confused by what’s going on in the story. The ending of “A Quiet Place” shows the discovery of a way to fight the monsters, and this defense mechanism is used a lot in “A Quiet Place Part II.” Knowing what happened in “A Quiet Place” goes a long way in explaining key aspects of “A Quiet Place Part II.”

The family at the center of this crisis are the main human characters who were in “A Quiet Place,” which takes place somewhere in the suburbs of upstate New York. The family members are Lee Abbott (played by Krasinski, who directed and co-wrote “A Quiet Place”); Lee’s wife Evelyn Abbott (played by Emily Blunt, who is married to Krasinski in real life); their daughter Regan Abbott (played by Millicent Simmonds); son Marcus Abbott (played by Noah Jupe); and son Beau Abbott (played by Cade Woodward). In “A Quiet Place,” Regan is about 12 or 13 years old, Marcus is about 10 or 11 years old, and Beau is about 5 or 6 years old.

In “A Quiet Place,” the Abbotts spend most of their days in a remote, abandoned farmhouse that has an underground bunker rigged with ways to alert them if the alien monsters are nearby. The family members venture outside when they need food, medicine or supplies. Even though they have a truck that works, they usually travel by foot, so as not to cause any noise that will attract the monsters. (One of the plot holes in “A Quiet Place” is a pivotal part of the movie where Regan has to drive the truck back to the farmhouse, and the engine noise unrealistically doesn’t attract the monsters.)

[Spoiler alert] In the beginning of “A Quiet Place,” a tragedy occurs where Beau is killed by one of the monsters. The movie then fast-forwards to about year later. Evelyn is pregnant, and her childbirth scene is one of the most tension-filled highlights of “A Quiet Place,” considering it’s nearly impossible for someone to give birth silently. And near the end of “A Quiet Place,” Lee dies when he sacrifices himself in order to protect his children. [End of spoiler alert.]

The beginning of “A Quiet Place Part II” gives a glimpse of the alien invasion when it began, so Lee is briefly shown during this terrifying opening sequence that was teased in the first “A Quiet Place Part II” trailer. The rest of the movie, which starts on day 474 of the alien invasion, shows a widowed Evelyn and her kids Regan, Marcus and a newborn son (whose name is not mentioned in the movie) trying to find a new shelter and other survivors. Evelyn ha a shotgun rifle with her for protection.

The Abbotts leave the abandoned farmhouse, which was destroyed in the monster battle that took place in the first movie. The house is set on fire, which is symbolic of the Abbotts trying to burn away the painful memories of a place they can no longer call their home. As in the first “A Quiet Place,” the family members don’t wear shoes when walking outside, because shoes make noises that the alien monsters can hear.

Regan, who happens to be deaf, is the most intelligent and most analytical member of this family. Just like in the first “A Quiet Place” movie, Regan figures out ways to save lives by outsmarting the monsters. For now, the Abbotts are on the move to find other survivors.

The trailer for “A Quiet Place Part II” shows a lot of what happens in ths movie’s plot: While walking in a field near an abandonded building, Evelyn’s foot sets off a booby trap that was placed there by another survivor. The man who set the booby trap is a deeply cynical loner who is at first hostile about letting the Abbotts or anyone else stay with him in his bunker. Regan and this man end up traveling somewhere together. And there are other survivors who encounter the monsters in a recreational park.

The man who lets the Abbotts stay with him is named Emmett (played by Cillian Murphy), and he happens to be someone who knew Evelyn’s late husband Lee as a friend. It’s strongly implied that if Emmett had not known Lee, Emmett might have treated this family more harshly and probably would have refused to let the Abbotts stay with him. Emmett (who also has a gun for protection) is bitter and grieving because he lost his family during the apocalypse. Emmett says out loud to the Abbott family that whatever humans are left in the world aren’t worth saving.

Of course, there’s a lot more that happens in the story—always with the threat of the monsters showing up when they hear any noises. Marcus gets his foot caught in a bear trap, so it’s easy to imagine what happens when he screams out in pain. While his foot his healing, Regan comforts Marcus by having him listen to music on a transister radio with headphones. Marcus tells Regan that the Bobby Darin song “Beyond the Sea” is playing on a repeat loop. She doesn’t think it’s a mistake or coincidence.

Regan decides to leave Emmett’s shelter when she figures out that there are other survivors hinting at their location through the repeat playing of “Beyond the Sea.” The movie explains how she’s able to decipher this clue and get a general idea of where the other survivors are. And when Evelyn finds out that Regan is missing, she begs Emmett to go looking for Regan.

It’s why Regan and Emmett are separated from Evelyn, Marcus and the baby for most of the movie. And, as revealed in the movie’s trailer, there are many other human survivors. Some are friendly and welcoming, while others are most definitely not. The alien monsters aren’t the only deadly creatures roaming around, because some of the humans are very homicidal too.

Because the characters in “A Quiet Place” have to stay silent when outdoors, there’s not a lot of dialogue, as there would be in a typical post-apocayptic horror movie. The character development is at a bare minimum, because these humans are just trying to survive and don’t have time to sit around having deep conversations. Evelyn is still a fierce and brave protector of her children, Regan is a fearless risk-taker, and Marcus is a mostly obedient child who finds his inner strength in this sequel.

However, the addition of new characters in “A Quiet Place Part II” was necessary to advance the story. Emmett represents the devastation of someone who has isolated himself from the rest of the world because he’s lost everyone he loved. He’s not suicidal, but he’s lost faith and hope in humanity.

Djimon Hounsou depicts an unnamed character who’s introduced toward the end of the movie. In other words, viewers should not expect Hounsou to have a lot of screen time in “A Quiet Place Part II.” Scoot McNairy is briefly in the movie as an unnamed man who encounters Regan and Emmett at a marina. All of the actors in “A Quiet Place Part II” do well in their roles, but Simmonds and Murphy have the scenes that carry the most emotional weight.

The visual effects in this sequel are more challenging and frightening, since there are more creature attacks and more people who are killed in “A Quiet Place Part II,” compared to the first “A Quiet Place.” Nothing is too gruesome, but there are enough deaths that these scenes might be too disturbing to viewers who are very young or very sensitive. And it’s easy to keep track of the simultaneous action happening in different locations because the film’s editing won’t let you forget it.

Visually and tonally, “A Quiet Place Part II” has more frantic intensity than “A Quiet Place,” because there’s the added tension of an underage child (Regan) separated from her only living parent while deadly creatures are on the loose. Regan’s independent streak is the biggest personality evolution of the members of the Abbott family in “A Quiet Place Part II.” And based on how “A Quiet Place Part II” ends, Regan is going to be a driving force of future sequels in this franchise.

“A Quiet Place Part II” shows how in this post-apocalyptic world, people can choose to reach out and find strength in helping each other, or people can choose to isolate themselves in a “survival of the fittest” mentality. It’s an obvious metaphor for how people in the real world can respond to global crises. The creature rampages are a big attraction of “A Quiet Place” movies, but what will keep viewers hooked the most is the believable humanity in this survival saga.

Paramount Pictures will release “A Quiet Place Part II” in U.S. cinemas on March 28, 2021.

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