What do you get when you try to mash The Raid with The Princess Bride? You get The Princess, a roaring concoction of martial arts, claustrophobic thrills, and medieval swords that may very well turn Joey King into the next rising action star. Like those aforementioned films, The Princess has cult classic written all over it. It has an unabashedly over-the-top approach to its gore and sense of flair, is light on story but very generous on sweaty fight sequences, and borders on satire, subverting a lot of tropes associated with its genre. While its own conflicting attempts to be taken seriously prevent the film from being great, the film manages to fill the ever-widening gap of mid-budget action films.
King plays the eponymous Princess who wakes up one day locked in her castle’s highest tower. When bandits enter her room to accost her, the Princess quickly brutalizes them, revealing that she’s more Hit-Girl and less Princess Buttercup. She soon realizes that the entire castle has been overrun by the man she refused to marry, Dominic Coopers’ pompous Julius, and that her family has been imprisoned in the dungeon. The Princess then begins a descent down to rescue her family trapped in the dungeons, with banquet halls and stairwells filled with bandits and all sorts of buffooning warriors.
The Princess takes immense pride in its conceptual conceit, flipping the convention of the damsel in distress on its head and executing it without restraint. Throats get impaled, people are burned alive, and heads fall off. The action, which toes the line between modern martial arts films and 80s schlock, serves as the exhilarating foundation upon which the gore builds. Set pieces are intuitive, cleverly designed, and constantly entertaining. Cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore’s eye for movement allows sequences such as the big close-quarters stairwell fight to feel boundless.
Much of the well-executed action is what allows King, mostly known to the masses for a string of huge romcom successes, to live up to the caliber of action set by martial arts director Le-Van Kiet. King settles into the role with enough grace and finesse to convince audiences she’s been doing roles like this her whole career, even as a threadbare script robs her of any opportunity to meaningfully act. The Princess won’t be King’s seminal entry into the pantheon of action heroes but it nonetheless remains a promising start to what might be a very successful stint in the genre.
Flanking King’s freshman status in the action world are genre staples Olga Kurylenko and Veronica Ngo. Both Kurylenko and Ngo’s statures as action heroes legitimize a film that painfully underserves them. Moira, the lover and second-in-command of Julius, is played with an undercurrent of lethality by Kurylenko that comes off as subtextual more often than literal (she is, however, quite deadly with a whip) as the film never goes beyond her locking lips with him. Were it not for the film’s focus on the dull failed marriage plot, Moira as the big bad would elevate the film. The same can be said for Ngo as Linh, the Princess’ mentor and close confidant, whose enigmatic presence alone pervades every scene she’s in. The few flashback scenes of her in the film reveal a familial story that’s waiting to be told.
Quite possibly the film’s biggest failing is its reluctance in embracing the material. The script lingers between a rock and a hard place as it struggles to maintain a somber tone in the face of all its excesses. It refuses to acknowledge just how silly some of the characters are, how audacious the fights are, and how its efforts to subvert the fantasy genre counts as satire. A great version of this film would have gone the way of The Princess Bride; self-aware and self-referential, and where every side character is a character. Instead, the film trudges through scenes of Cooper playing a live-action version of Lord Farquaad with the fervor of an A24 drama. Its thematics somberly examine the patriarchy as characters ripped from the WWE are beat to death. The Princess doesn’t quite find its footing in balancing themes with tone and the end result is a film that is both confident yet unsure of itself.