Joey King holds a bloody sword in "The Princess".

Super Stabby Agile Princess Frequently Ferocious — “The Princess”

Have you ever wanted to combine “Xena” and “Die Hard”? Well now you can! It seems like an absolutely sensible combination for a fantasy movie, but until “The Princess”, I didn’t even know it was something I needed.

Joey King of the “Fargo” series and “The Kissing Booth” here plays The Princess. She wakes up as princesses are wont to do, locked in the tippy top of a ridiculously tall tower. Her kingdom’s been invaded, her family locked up, and she’ll be forced to marry their invader to legitimize his claim. Luckily, she’s been training in secret her whole life to become a knight, against her father’s wishes. What’s a girl to do but eviscerate her way down room by room, staircase by staircase?

That premise sounds potentially dour. As thrilling as films like “The Raid” and “Dredd” might be, their violence is often meant to overwhelm. The high fantasy of “The Princess” is clearly inspired by these, but its more direct lineage is the winking nod to camp that “Conan”, “The Princess Bride”, and “Xena” have inhabited in the past.

Take the villain, for instance. Dominic Cooper plays the evil usurper Julius as halfway between Karl Urban and Tim Curry. It’s a weird choice and I swear there are points where you can see him thinking, “Do I go Urban or Curry here”, but leaning into overacting is exactly what a film like this needs. I can’t remember a thing Kevin Costner says in the 1991 “Robin Hood” for instance, but I damn sure remember why Alan Rickman wanted to cut his heart out with a spoon.

It helps that Joey King commits whole-heartedly to her role as The Princess. She does a Batman-esque job of grunting in pain, favoring injuries, and hurling herself off precipices in improvised escapes, all without making me listen to a monologue about vengeance or pretending the dude whose skull she just caved in is gonna live.

As she moves from action scene to action scene, she tears up her wedding dress for mobility and bandages. She isn’t granted any magical strength or superhero powers, either. She’s fighting stronger opponents, and many clashes see her easily overpowered or thrown. The combat focuses on her creativity, technique, and use of space.

The fight choreography is endlessly creative. “The Princess” doesn’t repeat its choreography sequences in multiple scenes the way many other recent films do (I’m looking at you, “Wu Assassins: Fistful of Vengeance”).

A big part of this is that “The Princess” really likes enemies that commit to a bit. One early foe is a tall, bare-chested man with a horned helmet. What’s he do when The Princess disarms him of his sword? Does he use his reach and strength? Hell no. He’s got a bull helmet on: he fights head-first and tries to spear her on his horns. Every fight has a theme. In this kind of fantasy romp, this keeps the action fresh throughout.

Traditional swordfights are rotated with kung fu training flashbacks, a swashbuckling spiral staircase sequence, a combination sword-and-food fight, and that’s all before Olga Kurylenko comes sneering in with a switchblade whip. This creates opportunities to alternate desperate fights with funny ones, and more realistic elements with sight gags. That keeps the tone flexible and the pace bouncing along.

It’s clear that King committed to the fight training, and that commitment coupled with creativity, ambition, and the fun of it all lends the film a feeling I can only describe as glee. You’re not getting “The Raid” out of this, but director Le-Van Kiet is giving you “The Raid” as if Xena or Conan were the one trapped in the building.

This is also yet another success for composer Natalie Holt, who’s on a run after scoring “Loki”, “Fever Dream”, and “Obi-Wan Kenobi”.

“The Princess” carries a theme about women making their own choices and having the right to self-determination. It isn’t subtle, but why the hell should a woman have to tiptoe around when making her own choices? It finds a nice balance of being obvious about it while allowing its point to evolve organically so it can fold in examples of complicity, or how “kind” patriarchy is still self-invested in its own power and has to be pushed into action.

Will you enjoy “The Princess”? The best way I have to put it is by considering choreographer and critic Jill Bearup’s review. She raved about the fight choreo, but disliked the story and thin characterizations. In her words, “It’s like someone mashed together a fight reel with a video game with a Tumblr post about a self-rescuing princess”. Her description is 100% right, and also 100% totally my jam. If you’re like Bearup and that amounts to a negative, you’ll come away thinking “The Princess” is way too thin on worldbuilding and story.

I eat worldbuilding up with a spoon, but it doesn’t have to be in everything for me to like it. “Die Hard” and “The Raid” are both ridiculously thin on characterization and story. I can’t remember what the Nakatomi Corporation does. John McClane’s a cop with marriage problems who likes…I dunno, air ducts and not having glass in his feet, probably. I still like him and want to follow what he does, and that’s at the same level “The Princess” treats story and characterization. We just accept this thin world and character-building in other stories because they happen in the “real world”, but if fantasy wants to do a film like this, why shouldn’t it get to skip straight to the bloody hijinx like the rest of them?

How many times have I sat there through a B-grade fantasy thinking, if only they stopped trying to pretend this is a self-serious prestige film and doubled down on the fight choreo and one-liners? “Clash of the Titans”, “Immortals”, “Snow White and the Huntsman”, “The Scorpion King”, “Hercules” – come to think of it, The Rock has an entire subsection here. “The Princess” is the answer to that, and if it’s what you’ve been looking for from this realm of fantasy, it’s a good answer.

King is doing the put-upon hero shtick extremely well. Everything else is seeing what themed enemy, new environment, and wacky improvised weapon the next fight will build its wildly inventive choreo around. That’s the definition of a great popcorn flick for me. It won’t be for everyone.

There’s one last note. I found “The Princess” cathartic. It holds an informed, confident hope, one I’ve been struggling with the past two weeks in the wake of my country gutting the rights and future of its people. Staring down the pipeline of what’s to come in the U.S., I needed this movie more than any other I can think of. More than masterpieces I love, more than comforting films from childhood, more than my favorite subversive work, I needed a princess to wake, realize nothing was normal, and fuck shit up. I’m sure it’s way too obvious for some, and that’s fair in criticizing a story. There’s power in an obvious point being obvious, though. There’s power in it being treated as if its undeniable instead of having to ask or negotiate for space. Call it unrealistic, but doesn’t that mean the problem’s in our world, and not the film’s?

You can watch “The Princess” on Hulu.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

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