“Reputation is what people think of you. Character is what you are.”
Duke of Oxford
The third entry in the Kingsman series is an origin story for the secret organisation, told through an alternate history First World War. Vaughn perhaps wished to make a war (or indeed anti-war) movie, and he does produce some sobering footage of the chaos of trench warfare. Ralph Fiennes is a fine precursor to Colin Firth’s gentleman spy, but the Duke’s pacifist desire to shield his son, Conrad, from war feels at odds with the world of Kingsman, and the resulting focus transforms a franchise known for its excess into a tedious matter of fictional politics. Indeed, aside from a brief excursion to Russia to assassinate a scenery-chewing Rhys Ifans as Rasputin, it is only the film’s final half hour that truly feels like a Kingsman film at all. Much of my criticism lies in the script, plagued by awful dialogue and pacing — notably, this is Vaughn’s first film without Jane Goldman, his longstanding screenwriting collaborator. Transferring the authorship of Wilfred Owen’s most famous poem to Conrad is cheap writing and unnecessary revisionism, worst still as the boy has not even been to the front when he supposedly pens it. I criticised the lack of women in The Golden Circle and the situation has not improved, with Gemma Arterton being the sole noteworthy character. The best thing about The King’s Man is that it will surely free Vaughn to move on to other projects outside the franchise. Whether he can return to the rising star I heralded with his exceptional first three films remains to be seen.
Bullet Train is a Tarantino-esque crime story that unfolds within the confines of a single train, populated by an ensemble cast of colourful assasins in the vein of John Wick. The ensemble cast excels in bringing these thinly sketched assassins to life, undermined only by some very dubious accents. Central to this is Brad Pitt’s charmingly hapless hitman-in-therapy, though Bryan Tyree Henry and Joey King are likely to be the most memorable. David Leitch’s action credentials are beyond reproach, having spent several decades as a stunt performer and coordinator (including as Pitt’s stunt double) before turning to direction with John Wick. He was apparently reluctant to direct this project because of the constraints in choreographing action confined in a train, but those restrictions can also breed creativity as we have seen previously in Snowpiercer and Train to Busan — such is the case with Bullet Train, and there is little sense of repetition in the kinetic hyperviolence until very late in the proceedings. The neon visuals of Leitch’s spy thriller Atomic Blondealso fit more naturally into the Japanese setting. The final element to holding the audience’s attention is the twisting story that gradually links the backstories of these assassins as they hurtle toward an ominous final stop in Kyoto. Along with Everything Everywhere All At Once, 2022 seems to be a welcome return for franchise-free action films and, in a quiet summer less dominated by superhero movies, hopefully Bullet Train will find the audience it deserves.