Producers: Matthew Vaughn, David Reid and Adam Bohling   Director: Matthew Vaughn  Screenplay: Matthew Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek   Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, Charles Dance, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Aaron Vodovoz, Todd Boyce, Branka Tatic, Valerie Pachner, August Diehl, Ron Cook, Ian Kelly, Stanley Tucci, Alexander Shaw, Alexandra Maria Lara and Joel Basman      Distributor: Walt Disney Studios/Twentieth Century Studios

Grade: D

Movies garble history all the time, but few have done so to such grotesque effect as this misbegotten prequel to Matthew Vaughn’s two “Kingsman” pictures.  Trying to conflate their wild action with some “Monty Python”-style wackiness and a weirdly Kiplingesque vision of British imperialism, “The Kingsman” only manages to be tasteless and puerile.

The end point of the picture is the formation of the Kingsman organization depicted in the previous pictures.  But the route there runs through a goofy reimagining of the origins of World War I in which the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Ron Cook) by Gavrilo Princep (Joel Basman) is plotted by a secretive group—not, however, the Serbian Black Hand, but an international cabal that includes such notorious figures as the mad Russian monk Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), infamous spy Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner), Austrian occultist Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), and a mysterious leader whose identity—and motive—are withheld until the close.  Even Vladimir Lenin (August Diehl) gets enlisted as the scheme progresses.

The man who is pitted against them is Lord Orlando Oxford (Ralph Fiennes), who ultimately creates the Kingsman society of ultimate law-enforcers but initially is a peacenik, his pacifist impulses fueled by the murder of his wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) by a sniper while the two were visiting General Kitchener (Charles Dance) with their young son Conrad (Alexander Shaw) on the front lines of the Boer War.  Now Conrad has grown into a strapping young man (Harris Dickinson), anxious to serve his country despite his father’s opposition to his joining the army. 

Oxford, however, is himself being drawn into efforts to prevent the outbreak of war by Kitchener and his lieutenant Morton (Matthew Goode), as well as King George V (Tom Hollander), whose childhood rivalries with his cousins Kaiser Wilhelm (Hollander again) and Tsar Nicholas (also Hollander) Rasputin and Hanussen, advisors to those two rulers, exploit to nudge them to war.  Oxford and Conrad, along with their loyal companions Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou), try to stem the tide, but they are unable to prevent Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and avert the war.

The focus then shifts to two fronts.  Conrad defies his father and joins the ranks, and when Oxford uses his influence to keep him from harm’s way, the boy resorts to trickery to remain in the line of fire.  Oxford himself realizes that Britain’s only hope is to induce the United States to join the war, but even the Zimmerman telegram’s proof of German treachery will not convince President Wilson (Ian Kelly) to take action, because he’s been seduced by Mata Hari, who has the film to prove it and threatens to reveal it to the world. 

This jumble of fact and fiction is mirrored in the movie’s peculiar shifts of tone.  Some parts are so nutty and overblown that the only possible reaction is to stare at them in stupefaction: the most notable is certainly a long confrontation between Oxford and Rasputin, which begins with the latter using mystical powers to heal the Englishman’s bum leg (injured in that Boer War prologue) and ends with a protracted fight in which Conrad, Shola and Polly also get involved.  Others are presented with such seriousness that suspicions that they’re intended as parody evaporate: that’s certainly the case with the depiction of Conrad’s courageous action in the No Man’s Land of the Western Front, which would fit quite comfortably into Christopher Nolan’s “1917.”  And the final swordfight between Oxford and the mysterious head of the SPECTRE-like cabal atop a craggy mountain mixes action and grim slapstick, along with a wicked last jape.

The attitudes imbedded in the plot are equally ambivalent.  Overall there’s an inexhaustible certitude in British superiority, combined with a stiff-upper-lipism that’s either droll or insufferable, depending on your point of view.  Yet while Shola’s ever-subservient, if powerful, demeanor indicates an admiration of the benefits of colonialism, an anachronistic nod to modern feminism is embodied in Polly, who’s generally a step ahead of everyone else and often saves the day when all seems lost.  For the viewer it all means a sort of cinematic whiplash.

But as nutty as “The King’s Man” is, it’s certainly visually seductive.  Darren Gilford’s production design and Michele Clapton’s costumes aren’t remotely authentic from any period standpoint, and the effects are cartoonish rather than credible, but as presented in garish widescreen by cinematographer Ben Davis the images are unfailingly impressive.  Editors Jason Ballatine and Rob Hall somehow manage to keep the plot convolutions reasonably clear, if not coherent, and composers Matthew Margeson and Dominic Lewis add the necessary dash to the wacky proceedings.

As to the cast, Fiennes brings his ineffable snootiness to the party, as Dance does even more so, while Arterton and Hounsou are dependable in stock parts.  Unhappily the stiff Dickinson does little to make Conrad anything other than the cardboard chap he is.  Ifans has a field day overdoing Rasputin to the hilt, but in his tripartite part Hollander proves that he’s no Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers.  Of the others only Goode has the chance to show off, and shows up badly.                         

A juvenile mash-up of history, spoof and outlandish action that’s simultaneously tin-eared and smug, “The Kingsman” is a well-appointed picture that does almost everything else wrong.