It’s rare I would kick myself for not being aware of an up-and-coming director’s backlog ahead of their first cross with a major Hollywood production. Particularly if their eye for both style and pacing looks clear from the offset. That’s immediately the case for Vietnamese director Le-Van Kiet, and The Princess. Call it the disarming mix between a fairy tale and an escapist action plot. That would be its most accurate description, and far from enough to cover its bases at the same time, physicality flowing as effusively as each of its shot changes. They go hard, quick, and loose without abandon, while unashamedly nudging an anxious patriarchal reign off its lofty pedestal.
All that takes a crafty mind to do, on the fly, with a specific manner of training and foresight. The film’s titular Princess (Joey King) is awaiting her dark fate, accepting Julius’s (Dominic Cooper) hand in marriage to satisfy the King (Ed Stoppard) and Queen (Alex Reid), who otherwise have no heir. As seen in flashbacks, her training under combat and etiquette specialist Linh (Victoria Ngo) makes her a fair candidate for a knight in the royal guard. Her folks will have none of it, forcing her to wed. On the day of the wedding, she’s plotting her escape, just as Julius has turned his new constituents into hostages at the start of his tyrannical rule, aided in judgment by dragon-like baroness Moira (Olga Kurylenko).
This incites a fair sense of urgency in the title character, looking to work her way down her daunting tower, battle with guards, and challenge the rule of law to save her kingdom. Not too abnormal of a day, in retrospect. The fact it would appear no less common in fairy tale retellings – not even Shrek would go so self-defensive- is something Kiet and co-writers Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton (Blood Soldiers: Interrogation) are betting on with their purely original spin on an existing leitmotif. If it’s uncharacteristic, that’s the point. This princess proves how unwilling she is to settle. And when pitted against a threatening (and laughable) opposition, the best reaction is to confront.
The story may come off thin and one-note in Kiet’s (Furie) hands, kept tight to 87 minutes before the credits roll. The position of in-character flashbacks from King’s perspective shifts that hobble into a benefit, making the most of an otherwise minimal blueprint. One with new lines drawn after each whirlwind scene. Even as the motivations look apparent, to take down a power-hungry aristocrat, Kiet’s adrenaline rush approach still does plenty to overwhelm the mind and please the eyes. If those eyes were to be fans of finitely choreographed action sequences, of course.
And how those beats are composed, from their descriptive detail on the written page to their editorial precision, that much was awe-inspiring. It scratches an itch certain other films in the genre couldn’t tackle the same way, stunt coordinator Clayton Barber (One Night in Miami) and editor Alex Fenn (Till Death) treating the material like a cutscene-heavy RPG. Each element stacks atop the other, to propel the narrative forward after its initial nitrous supply burns out. Twelve fight scenes in all, layered like playable levels to appease that escapist desire. To live the dream of medieval martial arts, or at least preserve its screen magnetism in a high-octane fashion.
Sustaining that guise under such affirming confines is far from easy. King’s portrayal only makes the effort appear facile, when really it was demanding, and life-altering. Combat training can go a long way to readapt both character and actor. The intense degree King undertook here shows so fluidly, adding unfiltered gravitas to the typical “damsel in distress” angle that’s always in need of a fresh workaround. It’d be corny to say it screams empowerment versus hegemonic, power-hungry tyranny when it does unashamedly. And that only further fueled King’s drive, combining movement, snark, and intellect. Both Lustig and Thornton make no subtle play to supplant all these themes with a 17th-century spin in their script. And it’s far from a one-way avenue, writing a storm for a monstrous Cooper to bear a set of sharp, silly claws. Kurylenko holding onto Julius’s second in command comes with a serious grip to balance out the antagonism. And Ms. Ngo couldn’t be any better an instructor if she were teaching in her sleep.
One’s mileage may still vary in the circumstance of wanting more, expecting an increase in context or dramatic convention to match the admittedly frivolous combat display. Looking past that a little, I couldn’t help but find Kiet more than gleeful to demonstrate his charm on a self-contained, flavorful genre stew. Quick on its feet, as it is with period finesse, what’s on-screen is nothing shy of breezy, if not wonderfully taxing. I was entranced by the whims of The Princess before it achieved the final boss stage, and while its stakes were persistently raised up at the mercy of a director ready to play in the mainstream. If one were to wonder where a talent like Kiet had been for so long, the guesswork should end here. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Princess streams on Hulu July 1; rated R for strong/bloody violence and some language; 93 minutes.