By Lynn Venhaus

Devoid of the first two’s offbeat charm, an airless and choppy prequel loses its way and winds up a tedious mess, despite a feisty Ralph Fiennes (Duke of Oxford) and tony cast in “The King’s Man.”

Don’t expect more oomph in the same manner as the playful spy adventure energetically captured in “Kingsman: The Secret Service” in 2014 — and less so in “The Kingsman: Golden Circle” in 2017, because it only feebly imitates some of that style and cheeky fun.

Like the original one and its sequel four years ago, “The King’s Man” is based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, with a story by director Matthew Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Karl Gajdusek.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Kingsman agency, the first independent British intelligence agency, is formed after founders were part of a secret group that takes on a cabal plotting a war to wipe out millions. The group includes some of history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds, and one man will race against time to stop them.

Taking creative license with the events leading up to World War I, and exaggerating the leaders involved, “The King’s Man” uses the link between Kaiser Wilhelm, King George of England, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia as cousins to frame its conflicts between might and right and the pursuit of political agendas.

It covers too much territory, too many people without a distinguishable identity and doesn’t rely on the truth behind “the war to end all wars.” England and Russia did team up as allies against Germany but other than a few references, it isn’t interested in being clear with the facts, bending the story to suit its alternate reality arc.

Though Fiennes is all-in and leads a solid British cast that features Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Gemma Arterton, and Charles Dance. Harris They can’t salvage a thin premise.

Standouts include Dickinson as Oxford’s son, Conrad (played as a youngster by Alexander Shaw) and Djimon Hounsou as the noble Shola, in loyal service to the Oxfords, who also has a secret identity and shows his deft combat skills.

Dickinson, who played Pete in another recent release, “The Souvenir, Part II,” shows much promise as the brave lad, and displays a strong relationship with Fiennes. He also portrayed J. Paul Getty III in the TV series “Trust” and was Prince Philip in “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.”

Initially protecting Conrad, whose mother was killed in an ambush in South Africa in 1902, has been Oxford’s mission, but the stand-up son’s ambition to serve can no longer be ignored.

He is shown the secret room at the tailor shop, and soon becomes a courageous warrior in seeking out useful information to help the war effort.

First is a dangerous trip to Russia, meeting with the unstable Rasputin, zestfully played by Rhys Ifans as a cartoonish madman. His over-the-top portrayal seems thrown together as a comic interlude, more in line with a Mel Brooks movie, while the rest of the movie is dead serious (and mostly dull).

Although it doesn’t have the panache and zing of that first film, the swordplay and fight choreography are as impressive as before. So is the cinematography by Ben Davis, a Marvel veteran who has been director of photography on “Doctor Strange,” “Captain Marvel,” “Eternals,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” among others.

Apparently, the pandemic isn’t the only reason behind this prequel’s long delay – it’s just not a well-constructed film, so why a Christmastime slot? It had been slated for release on Nov. 15, 2019, then pushed back to a couple dates in 2020 and this year, then finally now.

Rhys Ifans as Rasputin in 20th Century Studios’ THE KING’S MAN. Photo credit: Peter Mountain. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

“The King’s Man” is a 2021 crime thriller, action-adventure directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Bruehl, Djimon Hounsou, and Charles Dance.. Rated: R for sequences of strong/bloody violence, language, and some sexual material, its runtime is 2 hours, 11 minutes.. In theatres on Dec. 22 and on Hulu Feb. 18. Lynn’s Grade: C-

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