Last week, I remarked how fortuitous it was that Austin Butler just happened to come along right when Armie Hammer’s career crashed and burned. I think there’s a similar situation currently unfolding with Joey King and Chloe Grace Moretz, two actors of similar age and with a similar look, each with a respectable and eclectic filmography.
To be clear, I remain a huge fan of Moretz and I’ve been singing her praises for as long as I’ve been writing this blog. I might add that she and King have visibly struggled with aging artistically (an inevitable struggle for any young actor), and of course nobody came out of the COVID years unscathed. Even so, Moretz is still very active — indeed, Moretz and King both appear to be remarkably well-adjusted and scandal-free so far.
That said, Moretz was already an above-the-title A-list celebrity back when Joey King got maybe 30 seconds onscreen as a young Marion Cotillard. Put it this way: When Moretz’ career hit a slump, we got the high-profile disasters of The Addams Family 2 and The Tom & Jerry Movie. At the same time, King was slumming it with The Kissing Booth trilogy on Netflix and nobody noticed or cared.
So now Moretz continues to ricochet between arthouse films (the upcoming Mother/Android) and animated kids’ films (the upcoming Nimona), biding her time on Netflix until she figures out where her career is headed. Compare that to Joey King, whose upcoming Bullet Train and The Uglies clearly show that she’s making a mainstream play for the same “young female action star” lane that Moretz rode to fame in her “Hit Girl” days.
So here’s The Princess, yet another 20th Century Picture relegated to Hulu. This one was sold as an inverted send-up of fairy tale tropes (namely the “damsel in distress” archetype), with Joey King in the ass-kicking titular lead role. The film comes to us from Le-Van Kiet, a director with a solid filmography in his native Vietnam, alongside screenwriting newcomers Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton. Among the producers, I see Derek Kolstad (of Team John Wick) and Neal H. Moritz (late of Fast&Furious and the live-action Sonic films), so we’ve got some action bona fides.
Trouble is, of all the writers, directors, and producers involved with this picture — made and marketed as an uber-feminist action film — the only woman is Joey King herself in the role of executive producer. That’s a massive red flag.
Our vague medieval European setting is best described as “once upon a time in a faraway kingdom”. The premise begins when our unnamed Princess gets betrothed to some megalomaniacal lord (Julius, played by Dominic Cooper), only to leave him at the altar. In response, Julius — alongside Moira (Olga Kurylenko), some whip-wielding psychopath henchwoman — somehow rouses enough men to stage a coup and take over the kingdom. In the process, our Princess is drugged, chained, and brought up to the top of the highest tower until she can be forced to marry Julius again.
I hasten to add that most of this is conveyed through flashbacks and cliched dialogue in the first act. In the introductory scene, Princess — who’s in a cumbersome wedding dress, remember — manages to take down two armed attackers with nothing but a hairpin and her own manacles. She then proceeds to work her way to the bottom of the castle on her way to rescuing her family and her kingdom, with only sporadic help from Linh (Veronica Ngo), the mentor figure who will inevitably die and/or turn evil at some point.
I’ll give this much to the filmmakers: They don’t waste time. For better or worse, this is a 90-minute picture that was built for speed. More specifically, it’s a film that was built to get us from one action sequence to the next.
The characters are all one-dimensional at best or interchangeable and disposable at worst. The plot is thin and linear enough that I could floss with it. Every single line of dialogue is a cliche. The setting is pathetically generic. It’s not enough to call this a derivative movie void of any creativity, the filmmakers are actively depending on the fact that we’ve seen so many stories exactly like this so we can fill in the blanks and the filmmakers don’t have to waste any time or effort developing anything that isn’t an action scene.
Tragically, this extends to the movie’s feminist statements as well. The whole movie is lousy with such villainous and backwards statements as “a woman should know her place”, “violence is unladylike”, “you have to marry so the kingdom will have a male heir” and so on and so forth. It’s insipid, it’s asinine, it’s threadbare as all hell, and it contributes absolutely nothing of value to any kind of feminist discussion.
Perhaps more importantly, this is the latest in a long line of “Rosie the Riveter” movies with the intended message of “Women can do it too!” More specifically, it’s a film that glamorizes a female character who succeeds through strength, courage, and skill in combat, all traditionally masculine traits. (As opposed to traditionally feminine traits like empathy, patience, charm, etc.) For example, consider Pixar’s Brave, another movie in which a young female protagonist takes up arms and refuses to accept a husband she didn’t choose, all in spite of her disapproving parents. In that movie, Merida of Brave won by reconciling with her mother and accepting the Queen’s help in time of need.
Compare that to this movie, in which the Princess wins by fighting off the invading hordes and singlehandedly rescuing her family. She’s a young girl who has to “man up” to prove her worth and save the day. And that right there is a telltale difference between a male storyteller and a female storyteller in crafting a female-driven story.
What’s worse, the villain’s whole deal is that he’s disgusted with how “weak” the kingdom is. The guy positions himself as an uber-macho alpha male who will make an ideal king because he projects strength and inspires fear and he’ll never allow anyone to take what’s his, and so on and so forth. Trouble is, Princess is portrayed as the hero who earns her righteous victory by embodying every single one of those same toxic masculine traits. There’s certainly a difference in that Princess is defending her home and family from a violent coup, but there’s still a tonal disconnect there.
Dominic Cooper is stuck rehashing his character from Dracula Untold, and it doesn’t look like he wanted that any more than we did. Olga Kurylenko is chewing the scenery in desperate search of a character. Ed Stoppard and Alex Reid respectively play the king and queen like they’d rather be anywhere else. With every minute onscreen, every single actor conveys the question “What the fuck am I doing here?”
With one exception.
From top to bottom, start to finish, this is Joey King’s movie. The whole film was crafted with the explicit purpose of selling her as a viable action star. It certainly helps that we’ve got Derek Kolstad on hand, and the film greatly benefits from the established skill of Team John Wick in shepherding the next great generation of action stars and filmmakers. The choreography, variety, staging, shooting, and editing all make for incredible action sequences that are admittedly great fun to watch. We’ve even got an honest-to-God stealth level in the movie, for fuck’s sake.
Still, a crucial metric for any action film is whether it can deliver some stunt or fight scene I could never expect to see anywhere else. In that regard, the best this one can offer is a literal food fight. Cute, but not clever enough.
This is all about King’s reactions, her performance, her ability to alternately sell the character’s all-consuming physical pain and preternatural martial arts prowess. The film works beautifully well on all of those fronts and King acquits herself superbly well, but I’m not sure how much credit I can give to her for that. After all, the whole point of a demo reel is to make the central player look amazing, and this really is nothing more than a glorified demo reel.
I can’t possibly state emphatically or often enough that The Princess is only worth seeing for Joey King. If you’re already a fan of hers, I’m sure you’ll love it. If (when) she goes on to do bigger and better things and the whole world falls in love with her, I’m sure it’ll be great fun to look back at this movie with recognition that it was a major turning point in her career. For everyone else, the film has literally nothing to offer — no plot, no characters, no original concepts, NOTHING — except the action sequences. All of which are impressive, sure, but Team John Wick has done far better and more creative work elsewhere. (Or maybe Kolstad simply isn’t as good without Stahelski and Leitch to back him up.)
This is yet another direct-to-streaming picture that gets a verdict of “went directly where it belongs”. I could totally justify seeing this movie for free with the Hulu account I’m already paying for. The filmmakers should be thanking the gods that Disney didn’t try asking anyone to pay premium summer ticket prices for this one, or it would’ve been a costly humiliation for all involved.
One last thing I’ll say about this movie is that it got me a lot more hyped for Bullet Train. I’m suddenly a lot more eager to see what King can do in when David Leitch (also of Team John Wick) will presumably give her an actual character and a story to work with.