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MOVIE REVIEW

Before there was a ‘Kingsman,’ there was ‘The King’s Man’

Ralph Fiennes stars in this prequel to the two espionage movies.

Harris Dickinson (left) and Ralph Fiennes in "The King's Man."Peter Mountain/20th Century Studios via AP

“Kingsman” is the name of a Marvel comic book series about a secret British espionage organization. No need to worry: They’re good guys. The series has inspired two movies, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014) and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (2017). Matthew Vaughn directed both. A third, “Kingsman: Blue Blood,” is supposed to start filming this fall.

With all that going on, an origin story would seem hard to avoid and that origin story is “The King’s Man.” It opens in theaters Wednesday, with preview screenings Tuesday night. Also directed by Vaughn, the movie starts at the beginning of the 20th century and concludes a little after World War I.

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Rhys Ifans (center) as Rasputin in "The King's Man." Peter Mountain/20th Century Studios via AP

Ralph Fiennes, as the organization’s founder, the Duke of Oxford, is his usual suavely reliable self. Fiennes’s presence is the chief virtue, along with some handsome production values and a sword cam (yes, a sword cam). They are welcome in a movie that’s morally incoherent and historically incontinent.

Morally incoherent is an odd thing to say about a period action movie, but “The King’s Man” is a pretty odd movie. All sorts of noises are made about pacifism and the need to prevent war — the ostensible reason for the post-World War I founding of the organization — but the movie glories in violence. As a US attorney general once put it in rather a different context, “Watch what we do, not what we say.”

Gemma Arterton in "The King's Man." Peter Mountain/20th Century Studios via AP

It’s also morally incoherent as regards class, race, and gender. “The King’s Man” tries to have it both ways: wallowing in anglophile empire worship while offering the occasional tsk-tsk. “Conrad,” the duke tells his son (Harris Dickinson, more callow than he needs to be), “Our ancestors were terrible people. They robbed, lied, and pillaged until one day they found themselves noblemen. But that nobility didn’t come from chivalry, it came from being tough and ruthless.” Notice how those words, meant as confession, can just as easily be read as boast.

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The duke has a loyal African servant, Shola (a much put upon Djimon Hounsou), who gets treated like an equal, or at least he does when other people aren’t looking. So, too, with Gemma Arterton, a ducal family servant who when off duty is the brains of the budding organization. She’s helping to run “a network of domestics such as the world has never seen,” Oxford exults. “While British Intelligence listens at keyholes, our people are actually in the room.” Nice work if you can get it.

Djimon Hounsou (left) and Ralph Fiennes in "The King's Man." Peter Mountain/20th Century Studios via AP

Historically incontinent might seem even odder. But consider a cast of characters that includes Lord Kitchener (a nicely stern Charles Dance); Archduke Franz Ferdinand (Oxford is in the car when “Ferdie,” as he calls him, is assassinated, precipitating World War I); the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, whom Oxford tortures for information; and a royal trio, King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Czar Nicholas II. In rather a nifty touch, right up there with sword cams, Tom Hollander plays each. They were first cousins, after all.

The list goes on: Mata Hari, Woodrow Wilson, Vladimir Lenin, and in a class of his own, Rasputin. Playing the mad monk, Rhys Ifans gives Jared Leto’s turn in “House of Gucci” a run for his lire as recipient of this year’s prize for most egregious performance by a talented actor.

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In fairness to Ifans, “The King’s Man” has a worse bit of egregiousness to offer. This being a franchise, there’s an Easter egg. Who should turn up in it but — har, har, har — Adolf Hitler. History is just one big playpen for “The King’s Man,” but some games are less fun than others. Maybe using a glimpse of Hitler for a cheap thrill wouldn’t seem quite so grotesque in a movie that were more entertaining, but “The King’s Man” isn’t so it does.

★★

THE KING’S MAN

Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek; based on the comic book “The Secret Service,” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Harris Dickinson, Djimon Hounsou, Tom Hollander. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 131 minutes. R (strong/bloody violence, language, some sexual material)


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.