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“She refuses death time and time again.”
That’s the basic theme of Hulu’s “The Princess” spoken aloud by its villain, a monstrous figure named Julius (Dominic Cooper). The script here by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton has a habit of speaking its own themes aloud with blunt dialogue that’s often so on-the-nose that it verges on parody. I couldn’t tell how seriously I was supposed to take the girl power message of the film as bad guys literally say to the title character, a nameless woman played by Joey King, that “You should know your place.” It's a fantasy-action film with a female empowerment angle, which is nice in theory, but feels manipulative here. (I did wonder if there's a more pure version that isn't written by two men and directed by another.) The action here, directed by Le-Van Kiet, is reasonably entertaining, but everything that’s hung on that skeleton feels remarkably thin. Evil dudes face off against an underestimated woman, who kills dozens of them in “The Raid” meets “Game of Thrones” meets “Charlie’s Angels.” Wait, that makes this sound way more fun than it is. Well, it makes it sound as much fun as it should have been.
There’s really not much to say in a traditional “plot” section of a review of “The Princess.” Our heroine wakes up chained to a bed at the top of a tower. In the film’s fun opening scene, she dispatches two soldiers who come to check on her, beginning her descent down the tower, taking out hapless enemies along the way. Through flashback, it’s revealed that the princess was set to wed Julius, whose entire motive was to gain control of a kingdom that had not produced a male heir from its King (Ed Stoppard) and Queen (Alex Reid). When she learned at the altar that she was going to be a silent partner in the reign of a power-hungry sociopath like Julius, she refused, leading to a brutal approach. The King, Queen, and most of the citizens of the Kingdom are being held captive by Julius, his partner Moira (Olga Kurylenko), and their incredibly incompetent soldiers. The Princess will kill most of them.
Kiet makes a drastic structural mistake in “The Princess” by intercutting between his title character’s bloody rampage and flashbacks to how she got there, including training in the martial arts and swordfighting. We don’t need to know how this killing machine became a killing machine. Imagine if “The Raid” kept releasing its momentum with back story. It’s entirely self-defeating. It’s clearly designed to add some depth to admittedly shallow characters, but it doesn’t go far enough in that direction, feeling more like distraction than back story. A script like this needs to either set things up with rich, detailed characters or ignore that altogether and focus only on action. This one gets stuck in the middle.
When “The Princess” does foreground its combat, it can be pretty fun. There’s an excellent sequence down a spiral staircase wherein King takes on dozens of enemies, but the film has a disappointing habit of bursting to life and then retreating. Kiet can’t maintain momentum and Lustig & Thornton’s script just isn’t creative enough to fill in the gaps. The only reason to watch really is for Joey King, an underrated actress who is open to any challenge. If only this film was confident enough to really give her one.
On Hulu today.
Joey King as The Princess
Olga Kurylenko as Moira
Veronica Ngo as Linh
Dominic Cooper as Julius
Ivo Arakov as Knight in Shining Armor
Vasil Toshev as Death Guard / Deformed Giant
Martin Taskov as Murk
Mitko Angelov as Murk