The Princess, which recently premiered on Hulu and Disney+, seems both a simple and strange movie. Simple because it is one of the most propulsive and direct action films of the year so far. Strange because its non-stop violent action is paired with a story about a fairy tale princess electing to rescue herself. It is difficult to avoid wondering precisely who The Princess is for. With less violent action, it would be a stunning all-ages adventure. With a more mature storyline it would be fairly appreciated for its fight and stunt choreography. As it stands I worry this particular slice of fisticuffs is going to be unfairly overlooked.
Joey King plays an anonymous princess who, after refusing to wed the brutal and violent Julius (Dominic Cooper), sees her kingdom invaded and the Royal Family imprisoned. To rescue her parents and sister, she must fight her way from the tower’s highest chamber to its bottom level.
Director Le-Van Kiet helms what is effectively The Raid in reverse. Just as Gareth Evans’ action classic saw a lone police officer fight his way from the bottom of an apartment block to the top, The Princess sees its titular protagonist use fists, feet, swords, and a raft of improvised weapons to fight her way in the other direction.
Shakespeare this is not. Neither is it intended to be. The screenplay, by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton, is a bare-bones play with genre convention. The characters are so deliberately generic that most do not even have names. Cooper’s villain is only developed to the extent that he can be a menacing adversary. His sidekick, capably played by Olga Kurylenko, only reaches two dimensions if you count her bladed whip as one of them. The Princess has learned her exceptional martial arts skills from two Asian servants (played by Veronica Ngo and Kristofer Kamiyasu) with explanation given as to why they are working in what is ostensibly medieval Europe. It is all simply a structure: an excuse for the movie to travel from one point to another, and stage a bucketful of action as it does.
That action is the point of the movie. I have mentioned this before in other reviews, but it bears repeating: the two questions that must be asked of any art is are ‘what is the artist trying to do?’ and ‘do they succeed in that goal?’ One could criticise the minimal plot, the repetitive action, and the thin characters, but those things are literally the point of the film. The action is well-performed by talented stunt artists and well-trained actors. The choreography is vigorous and inventive. The photography does a fine balance of keeping the movements and the geography of each scene clear, and of making each fight visually interesting and imaginatively framed. Kiet is trying to make a pure action film here, and he absolutely succeeds. Any disappointment from the audience’s part is simply a case of inaccurate expectations.
Joey King makes for a great princess too. She is likeable, emotive, and easy to cheer on. She does a great job of playing someone pushed way beyond the point of exhaustion but still going, because she has no other option. Bruised, bloody, furiously angry – action enthusiasts avoid The Princess at their peril.