There’s enjoyment to be had in Matthew Vaughn’s latest slice of spy nonsense. He creates some fun action scenes, gives us a time period we’ve rarely seen in this sort of caper, and offers an overqualified cast. The problem is there’s enough of all that for perhaps a 90-minute film, and this fills the remaining 40 minutes with an over elaborate plot set against a backdrop of history for dummies.
This prequel to Vaughn’s The Kingsmen films promised to explain how that secret spy organisation was formed – a premise it finally remembers to deliver in its final seconds. Our hero is the Duke Of Oxford, Orlando (Ralph Fiennes), a diplomat and do-gooder with a shady past in the colonial forces. He tries to raise his son, Conrad (Harris Dickinson), as a pacifist, but when World War I breaks out the Duke focuses on keeping his son out of the conflict, and tracking down the shadowy figure who is manipulating world events to their own ends.
The story barely matters, and yet it’s endless. There are international plots, years of quasi-history and shadowy figures trying to shape world politics to their own ends. There’s far too little to do for Gemma Arterton or Djimon Hounsou, as Orlando’s lethal staffers. The tone veers from the epic silliness of a gonzo struggle with Rasputin (Rhys Ifans, loads of fun) to the near realism of a World War I battlefield, a horror that even this film takes seriously. It’s a clever gag to have Tom Hollander play George V and also his first cousins, the Tsar and Kaiser, but the biggest of his roles is reserved for the English monarch, and there he’s boringly sensible.
There are a few genuine surprises as this goes, but many more predictable twists. When the film engages with the real World War I, it feels pat, a ‘1066 and All That’ trip through the ‘best bits’ of history. The namechecks of real historical figures start shallow and become increasingly ludicrous, culminating in possibly the most egregious post-credit sting ever committed to film (yes, this is a prequel that sets up its own sequel). And the villain’s ultimate motives make little sense.
The biggest problem, though, is that Vaughn wants to have his cake and eat it. He pays lip service to pacifism while glorifying violence, decrying colonialism but lauding the leaders of the British Empire. Under the perfect tailoring there’s an ugly edge, a cynicism that would shock even Bond, and that makes it very hard to cheer on this King or his men.
In US, Hong Kong and Singapore cinemas Dec 22. Out UK cinemas Dec 26 and Australia Jan 6.