In the continuing genre of it is John Wick but… (with John Wick (2014) itself arguably being in the genre of The Raid (2011) but… and The Raid perhaps being in the wider genre of Hard Boiled (1992) but…), we now have John Wick but medieval times. The time period, not the restaurant; though, in the end, the latter may have been more interesting. It’s also a female led actioner, another point of interest and (sadly still) divergence. We really do need a strong one of these without a man at the centre of it; sadly, The Princess is not that film. Though this has passable action and R-rated brutality, a lack of imagination and disappointing filmmaking diminish any potential.
The premise is decent. It’s a reverse The Raid in which, rather than ascending a tower, that is just an excuse for a succession of fight scenes, we are descending one (for the same filmic purpose). Yes, our princess (Joey King) is in another castle: she jilted her husband to be (Dominic Cooper) at the altar for what was going to be a forced marriage to a horrible man (the film actually names him Julius, which really tells you where this film is in relation to the nose (it’s right on it, couldn’t be more so)) just so he could become king, as where this is set does not recognise female succession in its monarchy, and now she’s locked up. She’s locked up at the top of a tower and is going to have to fight her way down to freedom.
The film opens strong, a brutal moment involving getting out of handcuffs (think Castle Freak (1995) or Gerald’s Game (2017) but no way near as hardcore) that leads into a creative brawl. The Princess (yes, she’s actually just credited as that) has to fight two burly guards and, in doing so, uses whatever she can get her hands on to best them. There’s a scrappiness to it that is strong, but we already have indications of what will be movie-long problems. First of all, after dislocating her own thumbs to get out of handcuffs, she is then able to fight wonderfully and skilfully for the rest of the film. Of course, she needs to be able to, and the film is better for her competency, it just makes this opening moment feel rather pointless. Why do it if it is going to mean nothing? And this is why it is a problem: it is indicative of the film’s overall approach in which nothing really matters. There is no weight or impact to so many of the events and everything feels oh-so functional. It’s a long line of fight scenes that exist to be fight scenes, but so many of them are still under justified, with character actions existing only to facilitate them. Though, it’s not only this where there is no friction or substance, we are introduced to the current king (her dad) by him insulting the would-be husband, heroically proclaiming that he can’t rule by fear and speaking idealistically of the public. Later, we learn that he’s a patriarchal arsehole that was instrumental in this whole wedding nonsense. He is just whatever the plot needs him to be, which is made more evident by a vomit inducing ending that re-asserts the monarchy in a way that reminds you of the ‘we need more female drone pilots’ meme.
The other issue made evident in the opening scene is the film’s aesthetic. Which, to be blunt, is a pretty large issue. You see, the film is just very ugly. Everything looks overtly fake, is over-lit and comes across as cheap. It is clearly a modestly budgeted film but it’s not using that budget to good effect. Rather than making the most of constraints we have an overload of bad CGI and just this unappealing sheen across the whole film. It looks polished and dull, in a televisual way. Nothing has any sense of style or reality, and this is matched by wider directorial decisions. At points, we have a more contemporary style soundtrack: electric guitars and the like. This familiar usage of juxtaposition falls flat as it isn’t matched by the film’s expression. It is a reminder that the film should push harder, should be more fun and creative (and should be willing to break out of cliché). Instead, all the lightly atypical music does is highlight the actual typicality of the film. The film using a rather rote flashback structure to flesh out the narrative at key points (where we are thrown back to that fateful almost wedding, or just before) and it all just feels very perfunctory. It is all pedestrian detail and the film would be better by excising it, and focusing on badassery, or committing more time to actually creating narrative or emotional investment. It all just feels there for the sake of it and is not helped by how trope heavy the narrative is.
There are a lot of fights though, and they are fine. The choreography is good enough but is masked by ugly visuals and an over active camera. We move with bodies as they are pushed down, back, or whatever. It is supposed to add dynamism but it makes it all inelegant. The attempt at stylisation means the fight scenes aren’t allowed to just happen, the dynamic camera making it harder to take in the choreography. Even if it didn’t, though, the scenes are still only fine. Nothing stands out as original, bold or memorable, with no clever set pieces or anything genre fans won’t have seen many times before. The actual level of violence is also disappointing. The film gets its R-Rating, and bones do snap, but it gets this rating in the blandest way. It is a violent film but the presentation of violence lacks impact. It still feels toned down, not willing to emphasise impact or pain, a far cry from The Raid and a reason that the action lacks weight. There is nothing shocking and the actual level of violence on screen feels less than what should come from what is depicted, making the film feel diluted as opposed to bold, brash and violent.
Really, The Princess is fine. It is just fine. It pushes forwards at a good enough pace (but does feel longer than it actually is) and does have some decent action. It just completely lacks imagination, feels clumsily put together and is incredibly disposable. It just about does enough, it has sequences that entertain in the moment and the core idea of it isn’t a bad one. Quite simply, it is just never quite good. The script is never strong enough, neither are the performances, and the choreography is overshadowed by the camera work and, even by itself, feels very known. This is such a shame, because this has the potential to be very new and different, in the end it just feels very derivative.