There is an overabundance of male-led action films and shows. They range from incredibly good to absolutely unwatchable, but you rarely hear the general entertainment-consuming audience say that the sub-genre is witnessing fatigue. So, the question arises: what is one way to balance this testosterone fest? Well, as evident from movies like “The Old Guard,” “Kate,” “Gunpowder Milkshake,” “Black Widow,” “The Protégé,” “Atomic Blonde,” “The Assassin,” “Salt,” “Tomb Raider,” “Birds of Prey,” and “The Villainess,” you put women at the helm. Now, every time that’s done, a common criticism that crops up is that they’re devoid of “substance.” As if women are burdened with providing thought-provoking narratives while fighting goons while their male counterparts can recycle the same story endlessly. I say to hell with that. Give me my substance-less, female-driven action films. On that note, let’s talk about “The Princess.”
Directed by Le-Van Kiet and written by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton, “The Princess” opens with the titular character (played by Joey King) waking up in a tower. Is she in one of those eternal slumber kinds of situations which can only be broken by her one true love? Well, the chains on her hands indicate that she has either been kidnapped or kept prisoner, or both. She starts to remember that she was drugged and held captive by a group of men. And when two ugly-looking brutes enter the room, forcing the Princess to wield her fighting prowess and take them down in the bloodiest ways possible, it becomes clear that this isn’t your usual Disney fairytale (20th Century Studios and Hulu are owned by Disney). There’s no knight in shining armor, no fairy godmother, only tons of blood, sweat, and tears. Oh, and Julius (Dominic Cooper) is holding the Princess’s family hostage and planning to marry her and take over the kingdom.
From the get-go, Kiet makes it clear that “The Princess” is an out-and-out action vehicle starring the one and only Joey King. There’s enough backstory and plot to let you know who the Princess is, what Julius’s deal is, and to convey the message about women breaking stereotypes. But the focus is mainly on King’s commitment to the role, the stunt work, the cinematography, the action choreography, and the near-perfect amalgamation of practical and visual effects. There’s rarely any use of tight close-ups during the fight sequences, and they are reserved for King’s incredibly expressive eyes. All the set pieces are shot in wide frames, which are lit beautifully (so that everything is visible) by Lorenzo Senatore and edited exquisitely by Alex Fenn (so that you always know what’s going on). Kiet and co. should also be appreciated for taking King’s strength and energy levels into consideration while constructing the fights against her many enemies, as it gave them a sense of tension and weight.
Kiet, Lustig, and Thornton use a simple storytelling tool that’s commonly used in action films: having a point A and a point B. They establish what the Princess’s goal is, what’s going to happen if she reaches it (or if she doesn’t reach it), and the path she has to take in order to get there. And then they put the most ridiculous obstacles on her path, who are armed with all the medieval weapons and the corniest one-liners you can think of, which the Princess does return in kind. Also, her knowledge of the castle’s inner passages seems like a smart, non-contrived way of giving her an upper hand against the hordes of men trying to catch her. By the way, please don’t go looking for historical accuracy because there isn’t any. It’s more of a revisionist, fictionalized version of medieval England (as indicated by the accents and Natalie Holt’s score) where the King has created an inclusive community, and Julius is against it because racists will exist even in the most far-fetched iterations of our world.
Coming to the performances, everyone is great in “The Princess.” Yes, even the mercenaries. Olga Kurylenko and Dominic Cooper get a lot of “chewing the scenery” moments, and they absolutely sink their teeth into it. It genuinely feels like they are relishing their over-the-top, cartoonishly villainous characters. Veronica Ngo as Linh gets a lot of screen time, and she is fantastic in the action scenes, and her chemistry with the Princess seems organic. But, as mentioned a hundred times before, this is a Joey King action vehicle, and, my god, is she an absolute beast for 90 minutes straight. Her proficiency with every single weapon she uses, the way she conducts herself in the variety of hand-to-hand combats she finds herself in, the guttural war cries she lets out before, after, and while engaging her enemies, it’s all so bloody fantastic! A humongous kudos should definitely go to her stunt double and the choreographers. But King definitely deserves a lot of applause for embracing the task at hand and nailing it.
It seems like reviews have become all about managing expectations because media literacy is so dead that people always judge everything with the same yardstick and end up with the worst conclusions. Keeping that in mind, “The Princess” is a tongue-in-cheek, balls-to-the-walls, action extravaganza. Le-Van Kiet, Ben Lustig, and Jake Thornton mash modern choreography and stunt work, confine it to a single location, throw it into a different era altogether, and have a ton of fun with it. And their trust in Joey King (and the way she has reciprocated it) is worth appreciating. She has been in a bunch of action movies, and her most recent outings have been rooted in the rom-com genre. But it’s clear that she’s starting her action star era (she’s following this up with David Leitch’s “Bullet Train”), and I am here for it. It’s truly bizarre that this isn’t screening in theaters even though it should. However, since “The Princess” will be available on your small screen, you don’t have any excuse to miss it.