Review: In ‘The Princess,’ Joey King slashes the patriarchy and rewrites fairy tales
“The Princess” starts bumpily, hitting branches on the cliché tree with medieval-y flutes and mediocre CG castle environs. It gets cringier as we fly through a tower window to find the titular Princess (Joey King) prone in bed, Sleeping Beauty-style. But the ruse is quickly over, and the film shows its true colors with violent and exciting badassery.
Two brutish guards learn the hard way this princess isn’t waiting for a Prince Charming. A game King springs into action and shows off entertaining fighting skills that are anything but period, but who cares? The film has fun earning its R rating. And by the way, King acts her way through the combat: The Princess can wield a sword and spin and kick like a martial artist, but she’s slight and smaller than her enemies, and King roots the moments in a consistent reality.
The Princess has been promised in marriage to odious Lord Julius (Dominic Cooper) by her very traditional king dad (Ed Stoppard). Dad loves her but needs to marry her off to secure the future of the kingdom. When the Princess says a planned life of submission to a cruel, unworthy husband is “like something out of a fairy tale,” it’s clear she’s not talking about a happy ending.
“The Princess” is an unabashedly feminist action-adventure in which the central character rises from her dormancy to slash the patriarchy. It couldn’t be more timely, and it’s a good time too.
When the Princess rejects her ill-fitting suitor, Julius seizes her (hence the two brutes) and takes her family’s castle. Once she escapes her cell, the film takes on the shape of the martial arts classic “The Raid,” with the protagonist having to fight all the way down the tower, through level after level of varied opponents. She gains considerable help from friend and combat trainer Linh (Veronica Ngo), leading to the ultimate confrontation with wedding-bent Julius and his most murderous minion, Moira (Olga Kurylenko).
So how does a medieval damsel-in-distress story come to look less like “Rapunzel” than “The Raid” or “John Wick”? It’s directed by Le-Van Kiet, a Vietnamese filmmaker trained at UCLA, whose martial arts actioner “Furie” (2019) became his country’s highest-ever grosser. It’s produced by Neal Moritz of “Fast and Furious” fame and, natch, Derek Kolstad of the “John Wick” franchise. “The Princess” never reaches the “Suck it, Sir Isaac Newton” levels of “Fast and Furious” absurdity, but it does enjoy the bloody, bone-crunching action that lights up “Wick” fans.
That isn’t to say it’s nothing but laffs and slashes. The political messages begin in the exposition: The good king’s sin in the eyes of the bad guys is his inclusiveness. The pro-immigrant, multiculturalist bent also serves the plot as it explains the Princess’ martial arts skills.
As Linh, Ngo makes quite an impression. The veteran Vietnamese Norwegian actress-singer starred in “Furie” and the earlier box office record breaker “The Rebel.” She has appeared in a few major U.S. productions (“The Old Guard” as long-lost Quynh, who figures to be a main character in the now-filming sequel; “Da 5 Bloods” as Hanoi Hannah; and as Rose Tico’s sister in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), but this will likely be most American viewers’ first good look at her and her considerable physical abilities. She projects strength and focus and moves with intention. Each strike has purpose and power.
King’s performance is committed, and she sports a finely detailed English accent. The film cheekily closes with an apropos ’80s cover you might have fun guessing. This is a rocking “Girls Kick Ass” movie with sincere-seeming social messages. They’re sometimes sly: When she’s upbraided as a terrible, tradition-bucking oddity, the Princess (who is doing just fine without a man) says, “I was born this way.”
The messages can also be blunt as a cudgel, as when one opponent says, mid-death duel, “I underestimated you,” and the bloodied-but-not-broken Princess responds, “That’s OK. I’m used to that.”
Rated: R for strong/bloody violence and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: On Hulu July 1
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