The third time is the charm for British writer & director Matthew Vaughn on his “Kingsman” franchise. In 2014, Vaughn adapted Mark Millar’s 2012 graphic novel “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” toplining Colin Firth and Taron Egerton, and then followed it up three years later with the comparatively lukewarm sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (2017), with Firth and Egerton reprising their roles alongside Channing Tatum, Elton John, and Jeff Bridges.

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Now, Vaughn reverses course altogether with his preposterous but pugnacious prequel “The King’s Man” (*** OUT OF ****), starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, and Djimon Hounsou. Vaughn chronicles the events that culminated in the creation of an independent, undercover, espionage agency after World War I.

All three of these outlandish escapades amount to James Bond homages, but “The King’s Man” ranks as far more ambitious than its lighthearted “Kingsman” predecessors. Mind you, nobody from the first two films reprises their roles since their characters wouldn’t have been born!

Set during the waning days of the British Empire, this sprawling global opus unfolds during the infamous Boer War at the turn of the century in South Africa and then recreates the pandemonium that swept Europe headlong into the First World War.

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Anybody who doesn’t know much about The Great War’s origins will be more the wiser once they watch this hair-raising epic. Inevitably, Vaughn and “Oblivion” scenarist Karl Gajdusek tamper with history, but it all adds up to a profane, white-knuckled, slam-bang blockbuster with cliffhanger scenes.

If he accomplishes anything memorable with “The King’s Man,” Vaughn depicts the relentless slaughter of men in a “war to end all wars.” Watching “The King’s Man” evokes memories of not only the acclaimed World War I war film “1917” (2019) that received Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects but also the tragic Mel Gibson classic “Gallipoli” (1981).

“The King’s Man” opens in 1902, somewhere in South Africa, near the end of The Second Boer War. A Red Cross relief wagon train laden with humanitarian aid supplies halts at a British concentration camp. A muscular black man, Shola (Djimon Hounsou of “Amistad”), halts the column. He wears a sheath across his chest with a huge machete.

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He notifies the expedition leader, British aristocrat Orlando Oxford, the Duke of Oxford (Ralph Fiennes of “Skyfall”), his wife Emily (Alexandra Maria Lara of “Geostorm”), and their young son Conrad that they have reached their destination.

A dedicated philanthropist and pacifist, Oxford abhors the horrors of the Boer War. Marching up to the camp gates, he demands to see British General Kitchener (Charles Dance of “Gosford Park”), who has been hiding from enemy snipers. Kitchener emerges from cover to welcome his old friend.

A sniper misses Kitchener but wounds Oxford in the leg. Emily rushes to husband. Momentarily, she crosses the trajectory of the next bullet meant for Kitchener before Shola sinks his machete into the sniper’s spine.

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Before she dies, Emily has Oxford promise her to keep their son out of any war. Neither is this is the first nor the last tragedy in “The King’s Man,” and this prequel qualifies as a pastiche of every classic war movie rather than the earlier “Kingsman” spy spoofs.

Twelve years elapse, and Oxford lands a biplane at his palatial estate where his servants await him. Conrad (newcomer Harris Dickinson) is older and anxious to join the military. Remembering the promise made to his dying wife, Orlando thwarts his son’s efforts to enlist.

Meantime, Oxford has Conrad accompany him on a diplomatic mission to Sarajevo when World War I erupts after an assassin murders Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Now, Conrad pleads to enlist in the army, but Oxford doesn’t budge. Eventually, despite his father’s best efforts to keep him out of uniform, Conrad enlists as a lieutenant.

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Meantime, a group of devious dastards assembles at a secret summit atop a towering mountain and plots a global crisis. Principally, the anonymous leader—whose identity Vaughn doesn’t reveal until the grand finale, wants Scotland freed of British domination. This unhinged mastermind schemes with Tsar Nicholas’s sinister advisor Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans of “Hannibal Rising”) to keep Russia out of the war.

Kitchener dispatches Oxford and Conrad to persuade Tsar to join the British rather than Germany. Later, Mata Hari (newcomer Valerie Pachner) blackmails President Woodrow Wilson with an incriminating sex film to keep America out of the war! Guess Vaughn and Gajdusek forgot about the torpedoing of the Lusitania.

Finally, Conrad outwits his father’s friends who have struggled to keep him out of combat. He takes advantage of his rank to swap places with lowly Corporal Archie Reid (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Savages”) so he can savor the misery of the rat-infested trenches on the dreaded Western Front against the Germans. Conrad is horrified when German machine gunners mow down men by the hundreds.

Initially, Conrad succeeds in his impersonation and confronts the Germans in savage hand-to-hand combat. The muddy World War I battlefield scenes are far grimmer than those in “1917,” with Conrad blundering into ‘no man’s land’ on a suicidal night mission to retrieve a top-secret document. Eventually, Oxford and his housekeeper Polly (Gemma Arterton of “Quantum of Solace”) organize a network of domestic servants who serve as spies in all the major political households of Europe and America.

Basically, Vaughn’s nimbly orchestrated but labyrinthine tale of intrigue defies synopsis. Unlike the earlier “Kingsman” epics about a surrogate father and son, “The King’s Man” concerns a father and son.

Vaughn and Gajdusek leave no cliché behind in this improbable, but entertaining escapade. Although Fiennes resembles Indiana Jones more than a James Bond, the ultimate standoff between hero and villain is straight out of the Roger Moore 007 movie “The Spy Who Loved Me.” All quibbles aside, “The King’s Man” wraps everything up rather efficiently in 130 minutes and dangles the prospect of a sequel during an end credits scene featuring a certain Adolf to the surviving conspirators.

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