Directed by Le-Van Kiet
Starring Joey King, Dominic Cooper, Olga Kurylenko
Released July 01, 2022, streaming exclusively on Hulu (U.S.)
The Princess lays its cards on the table from the first scene. The film opens with a swooping exterior shot of a castle tower; the camera zooms through a window at the very top of the structure, and inside the tower lies a beautiful girl. She’s asleep, in a white wedding dress, laid out on a bed decorated with pink satin bows and rose petals. But this princess is no Sleeping Beauty waiting to be kissed. The Princess (Joey King) awakens, sits up with a dismayed sigh, and lifts her hands only to find her wrists manacled in front of her. A quick flashback reveals she’s been drugged, explaining her groggy state. The Princess explores the room, looking for a way out, and, finding none, she takes her chance at escape when two guards come into the room to check on her.
The Princess, who is given no other name through the course of the movie, brawls with the guards, eventually dispatching them both. She stabs one in the eye with a hairpin. She takes longer to defeat the second guard, struggling to back him towards the window. “You think you’re gonna make it all the way to the bottom?” the guard sneers, setting the challenge that The Princess will tackle over ninety minutes. “I’ll see you there,” The Princess promises before kicking the guard out of the window to his death.
The Princess does, indeed, make it to the bottom of the tower to avenge herself, but only after fighting a boss at every level on the way down. This will inevitably draw comparisons to The Raid, but martial arts movies love to give their protagonists a single setting to fight their way into or out of. (Enter the Dragon is set on an island, let’s not forget.) I imagine that’s exactly how director Le-Van Kiet pitched The Princess: What if the princess locked at the top of the tower knew martial arts and escaped by kicking everyone’s ass?
There’s a little more of a plot than that, but not much. The villainous Julius (Dominic Cooper, chewing the scenery) drugged The Princess and locked her at the top of the tower as punishment for leaving him at the altar. The Princess’s father negotiated the match to save his kingdom, since he has no male heirs. Trained to fight by warrior Linh (Veronica Ngo), The Princess knows she can handle herself and resents being sold off by her father into an arranged marriage. The Princess’s refusal to marry Julius causes trouble when Julius instigates a hostile takeover. He and his whip-bearing right-hand woman, Moira (Olga Kurylenko, sporting a black pompadour to match Cooper’s), crack down on the castle in an effort to force the marriage to happen so that Julius can assume the throne of The Princess’s kingdom.
The Princess is a martial arts thriller dressed in fairytale Renaissance clothing, and the fun comes from its propulsive, crunchy action scenes. As The Princess, Joey King doesn’t exactly match the material. While King brings an interesting youthful vulnerability and a real sense of desperation to the role, she can’t quite convince in the action sequences. One could be forgiving and read some of the less graceful physicality as character work; The Princess is trained in combat, but she’s not a hardened warrior. However, when King fights on screen next to Ngo, or even Kurylenko, the comparison is unfavorable. A lead performer with just a bit more of a compelling physical presence would have bumped this film up a grade, in this reviewer’s estimation.
Still, as is, The Princess is well choreographed, briskly paced, and mercifully thematically simple. After the week we’ve had in America, it’s undeniably satisfying to see an angry woman dropping men left and right in increasingly violent ways to defend and secure her own bodily autonomy. If that’s all The Princess ultimately gives, that’s perfectly fine.