In an unnamed fantasy kingdom, a princess (Joey King) is in trouble. After rejecting an arranged marriage with a cruel noble named Lucius (Dominic Cooper), she’s been taken prisoner at the top of her castle’s tower. But you can’t keep a good princess down. She’s going to kick, swing, and slash her way through dozens of bad guys to free herself and to save both her family and her kingdom from this smooth, black leather-wearing usurper.
Let me take the initiative and throw my bias on the table right away. There are few things I’m drawn to more than the sight of a woman in a fantasy setting kicking all sorts of ass, something I don’t get to see as often as I think I should. Man cannot live on Xena reruns alone. So when I first heard about The Princess, I admit that I got a little excited. But would it live up to the Joan Jett-quoting trailer’s infectious, rock music video energy?
For the most part, yes. After stumbling through a relatively rocky and awkward first act, The Princess is an infectiously entertaining, bloody good time. And I do mean bloody. The princess herself spends most of the film with blood stains on her dress, and the red stuff flies fast and furious starting with the very first fight sequence. Which comes just about three minutes into the film. It would have been two, but the establishing shot of the castle’s tower is quite long.
And what an establishing shot is is. The camera slowly flies across the water and into the window of the tower, where the princess has been drugged into unconsciousness, shackled, and placed in a wedding dress. The way the scene is lit and the way Joey King is made up makes her almost look like a CGI creation until she groggily wakes up and realizes her distress. Director Le-Van Kiet swings big right out the gate, and while he doesn’t quite sustain that level throughout the film, there are enough creative angles and camera work to keep things exciting.
We get thrown into the action right away, which is precisely the right way to handle a movie like this. As the princess works her way through Lucius’ men, we get flashbacks showing how she ended up in this situation. However, most of that is just a formality. There’s nothing wrong with the script, and the flashbacks are handled well, but this film is all movement and no narrative. We get enough context to justify the action, but the story beats themselves are both unoriginal and unbelievably predictable.
But we’re not here for that. Yes, the screenplay does frame things in a rather unsubtle feminism, which I should add is not in and of itself a bad thing. Especially right now, some anvils need to be dropped. However, when the film focuses on the story, that’s when thing start to lag a bit. This is most prevalent in the first act, when the flashbacks tend to be both inelegant and inert. The film finds its pacing after a while, but those first beats are rough, mama.
It’s the fighting that matters most here, and it’s the fighting where the film finds its genuine pulse. The princess herself is essentially a one-woman army, able to turn just about anything into a weapon from a hairpin to her own shackles. We discover through the flashbacks that she’s been training to fight since she was a small child, and by the time we meet her she’s a deadly combatant, tactical and precise. The kills here aren’t just brutal; they’re also as stylish and graceful as you’d expect from a fairy tale princess.
At the same time, there’s also a dizzying absurdity and humor to many of the fights, and anything goes vibe that hooks the viewer in. For me personally, I think the scene that first really grabbed me was when the princess fights a towering, muscular, scantily clad barbarian and ends up turning his own horned helmet against him. At one point, a bad guy screams “She’s off her nut!”, and he might as well be talking about the film itself. Physics and logic sometime go flying out the window, much like several of the princess’ foes, but when the fights are this good, that’s just fine.
Joey King is great casting for the princess herself, and she easily centers the story. Her innocent face belies the princess’ fighting spirit, and she’s both confident and vulnerable in equal measures. She’s not a superhero, and she gets seriously hurt and discouraged during her adventure, but King never lets go of that inner fire. King did the vast majority of her own stunts and fighting, and she’s a magnetic presence in every melee.
She doesn’t carry the film alone, as she’s got a great supporting cast backing her up. The princess’ best friend and mentor Linh is played by Kiet’s constant collaborator Veronica Ngo, and she’s a welcome rational counterpoint to the princess’ more emotional edge. Ngo is fantastic to watch in battle, and she infuses what could be a cliched character with the right amount of verve and spirit. The bad guys don’t slouch on the job, either, with Dominic Cooper’s performance being perfectly nasty in the best ways. Lucius exudes ye olde toxic masculinity from moment one, but he gives it a very debonair edge while also leaning into the inherently camp aspects of the character. That also goes for Olga Kurylenko as his whip-cracking lieutenant, who’s hell bent for leather and having a grand old time with her role.
Could The Princess have been a better movie? Yes, of course. It could have used a deeper narrative, and I cannot emphasis enough how much that first act needed to be tighter. Is The Princess a bloody good time, with all the fights, flips, stunts, and thrills that hit the brain like some Dungeons and Dragons-inspired candy? Hell yes, of course. We stan a damsel who takes on her own distress with the business end of a scimitar.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B
The Princess can be streamed exclusively on Hulu.