In the first seven minutes of Le-Van Kiet’s The Princess, Joey King’s circumscribed protagonist kills three men with a hairpin, a warhammer and a tower window fortuitously overlooking the sea. For the film’s remaining 80 minutes, she keeps the streak going any way she can, which nicely suits Kiet’s inclinations as a director. If The Princess’ mood can be described in four words, those words are “calm the hell down.” Once Kiet gets his movie going, he takes only rare pauses here and there for plot buttressing flashbacks, then revs up the action and his audience like he’s judging a 5K. Backstory is fine. Seeing King introduce scores of anonymous leering henchmen to their varying deaths is better.
The Princess makes a sandwich out of Brave and Moana, with Kiet’s best-known movie, Furie, as the filling: A spirited, fiercely independent princess (King), only ever addressed by her title, wakes up from a deep drug-induced snooze in her bedroom, chained up and with hazy memories of a betrothal that became a betrayal. Julius (Dominic Cooper), the entitled prince promised her hand by her father the king (Ed Stoppard), has led a coup against the kingdom with his army, slain the castle’s guards and taken her family—her father, her mother the queen (Alice Reid) and her sister Violet (Katelyn Rose Downey)—hostage. Lucky for them the princess is a warrior in waiting, trained in secret by Linh (Veronica Ngo), one of the king’s advisors. Let acrobatic medieval carnage commence!
And boy, does Kiet take that charge to heart. The Princess isn’t especially gory, but it isn’t sanitized, either, resting somewhere between The Raid and John Wick on the “raw brutality” scale. Instead, Kiet builds The Princess to a critical mass of fight scenes: Individually, they’re nasty within reason, but he contiguously stages so damn many of them that the blood King’s pseudonymous heroine spills gives the impression of a flood. Good, messy fun, in other words, orchestrated with gimbals, wide shots and an apparently very fit team of camera operators who move nimbly alongside the actors as they pull off fight coordinator Kefi Abrikh’s sharp choreography.
Kiet is something of a surprising choice to steer the project, being relatively unknown in the U.S. and with largely horror credits to his name; Furie is his obvious, strongest credential and frankly that’s all he needs given how damn good Furie is. The real wild card is King, who has recently drummed up impressive numbers (as far Netflix’s numbers can be trusted) with her Kissing Booth series, a rom-com trio equally frothy and backwards-thinking. But if King’s career demonstrates anything, it’s that she has charisma and potential, and The Princess lets her cut loose. There’s catharsis in her performance, as if this growling, screaming, steely character has bubbled and boiled in her gut for years, waiting for release.
Watching King express her apparently latent fierce side is a discombobulating joy. The way she emotes, we get the impression that a slash to the arm is painful, yes, but also an affront and an inconvenience, like a mosquito bite that requires stitches and salves. The damsel isn’t in distress. She’s pissed. (Also: Call her a damsel and she’ll kick you down a flight of stairs.) What The Princess avoids is channeling that anger into an overstated clash against the patriarchy, misogyny and male domination offered up as performative “girl boss” sloganeering. Kiet, King and screenwriters Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton let those ideas speak through copious rounds of men in armor either padded, leather or plate getting beaten senseless or to death by King as well as Ngo, who played Kiet’s lead in Furie with similar ferocity.
Intense as it is, The Princess stays buoyant. Kiet’s focus is on the breakdown of human bodies via pure violence, yes, but he has a playful spirit complemented, perhaps, by King’s presence; she’s playful, too. Likewise, she’s complemented and aided by Kiet’s talents as an action director. Put together, they ease into unexpected simpatico, whether King is spinning off one-liners, slicing through scoundrel hordes, or taking a whupping from Moira, Julius’ right-hand lady and top consort, played by Olga Kurylenko with the same relish as a cat that’s caught a canary. Most of 2022’s action movies simply exist. The Princess reigns.
Director: Le-Van Kiet
Writers: Ben Lustig, Jake Thornton
Starring: Joey King, Dominic Cooper, Olga Kurylenko, Veronica Ngo, Ed Stoppard, Alice Reid, Katelyn Rose Downey
Release Date: July 1, 2022 (Hulu)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.