Joey King stars as fantasy-adventure royalty so fun in combat she rises above the hyper-simplicities of her fight.
She is no damsel, and she will be out of distress. It will take the unnamed Princess (Joey King, also an executive producer) of the straight-to-Hulu fantasy adventure The Princess under five minutes to prove it to you.
Why must she awaken her warrior spirit with haste? Much like the real world, The Princess’ lilac-hued fantasy kingdom, which doesn’t elaborate on its whereabouts (despite hints of bagpipes, hurdy-gurdys and kattajaq in composer Natalie Holt’s rousing score), a woman’s words and pleas are destined for deaf ears. Her “no, not ever” is a “yes, maybe later” to her beardy suitor Julius (Dominic Cooper). Marrying him unwittingly in a ceremony preordained by The King (Ed Stoppard), The Princess first comes to us with the pomp and circumstance of a captive at the top of her castle’s tower.
Dad is also to blame for daughter’s current ordeal; one night by the fire with The Queen (Alex Reid) and The Princess’ sister Violet (Katelyn Rose Downey), he explained why this forced knot-tying must come to be with words like “strategically,” “no son” and “no heir.” He also had no clue Julius’ bride-to-be was in the room.
Some props to him, however, for feeling anguish at a decision that will earn his daughter’s disfavor. Julius, on the other hand, spirals like a boy who must have his toy, which Cooper manifests in a routine of scowling here and snarling there. He’s set to have a re-wedding, where red will run should she refuse again. Such level-headedness is somehow also supported by his whippy right-hand woman Moira (Olga Kurylenko). With that threat, The Princess’ battle for freedom takes on a second layer: At risk is not just her homeland, but her sense of self. It’s too bad that this revelation spells the end of all the depth you can find within The Princess.
But demanding more from The Princess is a fool’s errand, as it’s light on its feet and more concerned with getting you to the next setpiece. Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton’s script is thin and obvious, but there’s also enough structure to carry our heroine from spire to base, or chamber to courtyard, until her planned destination. This structure, which plants milestones in each fighting arena, is very video game-like in design, complementary to the “vessel for action” formula of John Wick and xXx (of which executive producers Derek Kolstad and Neal H. Moritz were respectively a part). As a result, the film won’t tax you much, if at all, on The Princess’ path to becoming a skillful butt-kicker. There’s even enough sweetness to forego a few dated physical comedy gags that would have killed eons prior.
The Princess is (more of) an action sizzle reel to showcase King’s nascent action chops, and Lustig and Thornton charitably set up a suitable gauntlet for her talents. They’ve turned every inch of the castle into a setpiece-in-waiting, with plenty of spice and variety showing up in new spaces or enemy types.
What spares the film from diminishing returns is director Le-Van Kiet’s deft command of action; as seen in his 2019 Vovinam-driven Hai Phượng (Furie), he understands that the genre works because of how bodies in the frame can move, more than how often the editor can zip to different angles. Every strike and swing from both friends and foes lands completely from start to stop in the frame. Sometimes the geography changes drastically, for The Princess shall Ghost Protocol her way to a window or Villainess herself to another floor.
But Lorenzo Senatore’s camerawork (gentle in its swayings) and Alex Fenn’s editing (interested in choreography) orient the viewer at all times. As long as your eyes don’t register a couple of fleeting occasions where the digital wizardry can’t mask its blemishes, that is.
More importantly, those features express respect to the people who add the most value to The Princess. There’s the stunt team, with Hobbs and Shaw’s Stanimir Stanamov and Furie’s Samuel Kefi as headliners. And don’t forget the principal duo of King’s Princess and her mentor Linh (Veronica Ngo, steely and formidable).
For the latter, Linh is a great follow up after her turn as Da 5 Bloods’ Hanoi Hannah; not only does she get to flaunt more of her dramatic chops in English (on top of literal chops), she’s also the answer to why The Princess is the person she is right now. In flashbacks that surface when the king’s daughter needs a timeout, Linh shows that she’s the borealis to this Aurora variant. Or the Asian Antiope to the castle’s red-haired wonder.
Perhaps the sole caveat is that Linh doesn’t appear in The Princess’ aforementioned less-than-five-minute window. She could have more quickly reinforced why our heroine is fighting, making her a valuable round-one perk. But even without it, The Princess remains a belle who can break bones—and make much merry while doing so.
The Princess is currently streaming on Hulu.