The Princess (2022)
Bow to no one.
What if The Princess Bride (1987) but Die Hard (1988)? What if Tangled (2010) but The Raid (2011)? What if we took the quite welcome trend towards agency for female characters in genre fare to its logical and bloody conclusion? What if the scene in Shrek (2001) where Princess Fiona does kung fu, but for 94 minutes? What if, when the princess is chained up in the tower and two goons come to drag her away to whatever awfulness awaits, she dislocates her fucking thumb and beats the living shit out of them with her manacles?
That happens in the opening scene of The Princess. After one soon-to-meet-his-maker baddie snarls, “you think you’re gonna make it all the way to the bottom?” the titular character (Joey King) calmly replies, “I’ll see you down there” and kicks him out the goddamn window, whereupon he plummets to his doom (his mate is already rapidly cooling on the cobbles with a hairpin in his brain).
First of all: coooooool. Second of all: Definitely not the movie we were expecting, right? But at least you already know by this point if you’re on board or you’re not. If you’re not (I can imagine a few accidental clicks on the princess-packed Disney+ interface, where this thing can be found), you can hit the eject button now, but if you’re down with this sickness, you’re champing at the bit because third of all: how good is this opening scene? It tells you everything you need to know. She’s at the top of the tower; she has to get to the bottom of the tower; there are bad guys between the former and the latter, but she’s a pint-sized powerhouse with absolutely no compunction about murderlising cunts. Let’s fucking goooo …
Economy is the name of the game here, and this genre mashup relies on our savviness as viewers to paper over the gaps and fill in the blanks in its rush to get to the good stuff.
Basically, The Princess (names are very unnecessary when we’re here to do harm) was promised to eeeevil Prince Humperdinck-alike Julius (Dominic Cooper, who always understands the assignment in these things — see 2014’s Dracula Untold), but she wisely left him at the altar. Julius has now seized the castle and is holding the King (Ed Stoppard) and Queen (Alex Reid), plus younger Princess Violet (Katelyn Rose Downey) hostage.
Our heroine, who was trained in combat by loyal woman-at-arms Linh (Veronica Ngo), has to fight her way down past an army of mooks and an array of bosses, each more deadly than the last.
You know the drill — we can add Dredd (2012) and, perhaps most tellingly, Bruce Lee’s original plans for Game of Death (1978) to the mix of inspirations. It’s a high concept designed to give us plenty of bang for our buck and violence for our running time, which sounds simple but is a hell of a lot harder than it looks.
It’s impossible to overstate how much fun this thing is. It’s brisk, brutal, and yet somehow breezy, delivering plenty of blood and broken bones but always with a knowing wink. It’s trafficking in genre tropes; it knows it, it knows we know, and thus the compact is sealed. But it’s also good, and “fun” and “good” are not the same thing (Thor: Love and Thunder, also out this week, is fun, but not good — what perfect timing). The Princess has a constrained budget and is mostly shot on some fairly obvious sets, but you can see every dollar on the screen and, more importantly, every ounce of talent and preparation. This might be a cheap film by modern cinematic standards, but it’s not a cheapie; nobody’s phoning it in, everyone’s giving it their lot, and it shows, especially in the fights.
Oh man, the fights.
After the recent Obi-Wan Kenobi series, I was lamenting that show’s genuinely disappointing fight choreography, especially given its massive budget and the importance of action in both that series in particular and the broader popular film culture in general. Not every movie is an action movie, but almost every blockbuster is to one degree or another, especially the big franchises (The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars), so it’s disappointing to see on-screen fights which, while they may not be the least effort offerings (you never know what the production constraints are unless the studio feels like telling you) are pretty lackluster in effect.
The effect in The Princess is not lackluster — it’s incredible. Director Lê Văn Kiệt — Furie (2019), go track that one down — knows what we’re here for, and he knows that if the action doesn’t work, neither does the movie. And so, we get a great variety of action beats, a good mix of weapons, opponents, situations, and what have you, all fantastically staged. Little grace notes abound — I love the moment where a guy in a horned helmet strikes sparks as his head is dragged along a wall, almost as much as I love when a seemingly empty suit of play armor comes to life (but not as much as I love leaving some surprises for you to find, so that’ll be enough spoilers). The whole thing is creative, energetic, fiendishly inventive, and fun. First-time screenwriters Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton seem to have decided to jam everything they dig about action into one script just in case they never got to do another one (that’s good advice, by the way), and we reap the benefits.
It helps that little Joey King — and she looks absolutely tiny in this when up against a variety of hulking henchmen — has Done The Work. Actors talking about boot camp and training is old hat these days and generally at least leavened with bullshit to some degree or another, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding (the Cruiser and Keanu, basically). King has not spoken about her training to my knowledge, so I’m forced to assume she was put through some kind of brutal La Femme Nikita/The Villainess absolute gladiator academy of a program in prep for this. Of course, there’s some doubling — they’re not gonna kill the kid, after all — but she absolutely sells the whole bit, holding her own alongside and against veterans like Ngo and Olga Kurylenko (oh yeah, she’s in this, as a villain, wielding a whip — brace for that).
About the only thing that doesn’t quite work is the flashback structure used to give us an explanation for The Princess’s ass-kicking acumen — if it’s necessary at all, it certainly could have been shorter and kept us more in the film’s ongoing present. That aside, though? No notes. This flick is a blast. It’s easily going to be a Top 5 actioner for the year, it’s sitting on Disney+ right now (or Hulu if you’re nasty/American), and you’re a goon if you rob yourself of this absolute joy of a movie. The Princess fucking rules.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson