Matthew Vaughn’s shambolic prequel to his Kingsman movies has a couple of inspired ideas. Among these is casting the same actor to play three grandsons of the British empress Victoria. Tom Hollander is the English monarch George, Prussian king Wilhelm and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas.

The backdrop for The King’s Man is World War I. The Russian Revolution is round the corner and Europe is in turmoil. In London, a trio of undercover busybodies, with the blessings of King George, fights the good fight.

Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), Polly Wilkins (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou) are lying low by pretending to be master and servants. Orlando’s son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) is keen on joining the war effort, which Orlando, a widower, tries to prevent.

The emergence of a group of multi-national criminals, led by a literally shadowy mastermind, forces Orlando’s hand. This group is apparently not only responsible for World War I, but is also playing a behind-a-scenes role in Russian politics.

It leading light is Grigori Rasputin, played by Rhys Ifans with sunken kohl-laden eyes and a beard nearly as long as his wig. In the real world, the malevolent mystic had a mesmeric hold over the Tsar. In the movie, Rasputin has terrible table manners and a skill for combining fighting moves with Cossack dance spins.

Rasputin provides the much-needed laughs in a film that careens between hard-core action, sentimental father-son scenes and an insistence that the world is better off when British aristocrats are in charge. The screenplay by Matthew Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek delivers an alternate history lesson that brings even Joseph Stalin down to the level of the average comic-book villain.

Ralph Fiennes, this movie’s idea of a toffish Ethan Hunt, gamely stretches sinew and limb to defeat his adversaries. Although neither ageless superhero nor dashing leading man, Fiennes does his best to stay on course in a narrative that is cross-eyed at the best and worst of times.

The King’s Man (2021).