“Once upon a time, in a land far far away…” is how most fairytales begin. Soon after, there’s usually an image of a fair princess whose fate is about to be decided by the whims of either a charming prince or a vicious witch. Leaning into this, Lê Văn Kiệt’s The Princess starts almost exactly as you’d expect all stories of a princess in trouble to open: a wide shot of a castle by the water, a gold title card with ivy wrapping around the delicate lettering, a zoom into the window of the tallest tower, and a figure lying supine in a luxurious white gown. All of this prompts the expected questions: How will our damsel be saved? By whose hand shall she be rescued? To which gallant warrior will her fate fall? With these questions in place, the script from first-time feature writers Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton immediately throws them all away as our unnamed heroine (only referred to as The Princess (played by Joey King) frees herself from her wrist bonds, dispatches her guards, and begins the long journey to free her family. Feeling like a strange mixture of Indonesian action marvel The Raid: Redemption (2011) and something from the makers of Disney’s Descendants series, The Princess is violent and economically fast-paced, while also strangely pristine and fantastical. When the two blend seamlessly, The Princess is a solid action ride anchored by a strong Joey King performance. When the two vellicate, the picture as a whole suffers.
Having rebuked Prince Julius (Dominic Cooper), The Princess finds herself locked up while Julius captures the castle, holding her family hostage as bargaining chips until she changes her mind. While he thinks that his show of strength is proof enough that he’s ready to rule in place of The King (Ed Stoppard), he’s about to proven wrong as his misogyny is no match for a warrior who’s been preparing for battle for years with nary a foe to fight. Angry, skilled, and possessing home field advantage, The Princess is about to teach Prince Julius and his consort Moira (Olga Kurylenko) that strength only matters if you have the patience and clarity of heart to strike smart blows, even against a greater opponent.
In Lê Văn Kiệt, I trust. His 2019 release Furie, starring fellow The Princess actor Veronica Ngo (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) is an extraordinary martial arts drama wherein a former gang leader has to return to her roots in order to save her child taken by human traffickers. The work in that film is extraordinary, so having Kiệt behind the camera for this R-rated fairytale twist adventure immediately makes The Princess a must-watch. Thankfully, much of the action lives up to the promise of past work and what is shown in the trailer doesn’t even get to the best of it. Part of what separates the action is that Kiệt uses longer takes, requiring that the actors do more of their stunts, which, as a result, enhances the believability of the illusion. King proves more than capable, especially in a rather long-take on a staircase teased in the trailer. Long takes during action sequences alone don’t make a film strong, there needs to be creativity in the approach and execution. In the press notes, Ngo mentions how the script reminded her of The Raid, a film which follows an elite task force infiltrating an apartment building filled with innocents and thugs in order to arrest a crime boss on the top floor. In that film, the stunts require a certain improvisational approach due to the tight spaces of the hallways or the openness of the apartments. Kiệt and stunt coordinator Clayton Barber (Creed; Jessica Jones) make grand use of each setting to ensure that every altercation The Princess engages in builds in difficulty while requiring both varied and accumulative approaches to attack and defense. Audiences looking for clever action will walk away happy.
What’s often left out from most American films is how fighting is just as integral to a character as dialogue, that what happens in a fight can and should communicate something that moves the narrative forward. If The Princess is a story about fighting against a literal invader while battling for individual bodily autonomy (The Princess was about to be married off to Julius, after all), then the fights should help convey this. It does what starts out as a small thing but progressively becomes more significant as the film continues: the dress The Princess wears is destroyed/tailored as a result of each altercation. Parts that are too long, hampering movement, get ripped off; the pearl-white is tarnished by dirt, sweat, and blood; the once flowing gown is transformed into a warrior’s uniform thanks to the trials of combat. Details can make or break a film and this is the kind that enhances the experience because it helps make The Princess’s internal struggle and growth external as we literally watch her transform before us.
Where the film suffers, though, is also in the details. Given that the film is a twist on European fairytales of old, one may forgive the centering of a white character as the hero. What’s harder to forgive is when the centering reduces another in the process. We learn via flashbacks what happened prior to The Princess waking in the tower, even going so far back as being a young girl trained in secret by Ngo’s Linh. This is meant, I suspect, to combat Prince Julius accusations regarding integration of cultures as reductive to the kingdom (a small detail that wonderfully highlights Julius’s deep rooted xenophobia and intolerance), when, in truth, it makes the current royal family stronger as evidenced by Linh’s teaching. This is a strong element of the overall theme of strength and unity; however, the details of the film that reduce the whole come in moments such as when Linh is passed over for a family heirloom in order to elevate The Princess. Linh isn’t fazed by this and, likely recommended it, but it just amplifies the White Savoir trope more than it extinguishes it. Later, when The Princess is wounded and she attempts to treat them, a minor slash is focused on and a major side-wound is ignored. For all the moments when the film pays great attention to the details which anchor the fantastical action elements of The Princess to reality, the way it goes about short-handing things proves detrimental to the total experience. Coupled with R-rated violence against a Disney Channel-esque production design, The Princess often feels at odds with itself in the way it uplifts in one scene and then betrays itself in another.
Prior to The Princess, the works I knew Joey King from are projects like the sweet Wish I Was Here (2014), the outstanding Summer ‘03 (2018), and one episode of The CW’s The Flash. Thus, the initial draw to check out The Princess came from a desire to see Kiệt reunite with Ngo. Thankfully, it’s a reunion worth waiting for as Ngo’s Linh isn’t fully sacrificed to make way for King’s Princess. No doubt in my mind though, King’s fans from her The Kissing Booth series on Netflix or her other dramatic series work will find themselves shocked at the stuntwork she engages in. The Princess is to King as Nobody (2021) is to Bob Odenkirk, inciting a shift in audience perception for what the actor can do from here forward. So come for an action-adventure fairytale that has the damsel executing her own rescue, villains who chew the scenery all the way to their devilish ends, and a happily ever after that doesn’t skimp on the bloodletting.
Available on Hulu July 1st, 2022.
For more information, head to the official The Princess webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.