Fairy-tale conventions dictate that a princess in distress will likely get rescued by a dashing man — except in more modern cases, where she might instead smack the man she once wanted to marry, get rescued by an ogre, start a fashion empire, or any of the many contemporary iterations that subvert the damsel-in-distress trope.
The live-action martial arts movie The Princess could easily just be another story about one more headstrong princess who doesn’t want to wait around to be rescued. Its fairy-tale tropes could make it look like a Disney film from a distance — and the fact that Disney acquired it, and is releasing it on Disney Plus outside the U.S., doesn’t dispel that impression. But it’s actually a 20th Century Studios title, an R-rated killer-combat film that lets the unnamed princess at its center do serious, bloody damage. From action director Le-Van Kiet, The Princess plays into well-worn genre subversions, but actually sees those subversions through for a satisfying effect.
[Ed. note: This review contains some slight setup spoilers for The Princess.]
The Princess kicks off with the titular princess (Joey King) waking up handcuffed at the top of a tall tower, where she immediately takes out her guards. A series of flashbacks reveal that she was supposed to enter an arranged marriage, but left her would-be groom, Julius (Dominic Cooper, a recurring MCU player as Tony Stark’s father, Howard), at the altar. As revenge, Julius captured the royal family and locked the princess in the tower to force her to marry him so he can take over the throne. But he doesn’t realize the princess has trained in hand-to-hand combat since early childhood. With her family being held at sword-point, it’s up to the princess to fight her way down the tower and rescue them.
Why does Julius want the throne so bad? He thinks the current king is weak. Why does he need the princess to marry him, when he has the power to just seize the throne? Because the royal family doesn’t have any sons, and this is the sort of generic fantasy kingdom that requires a male heir from the monarchy’s bloodline and can’t even consider options that might give women more agency. In one of the flashbacks, the princess marches into the throne room, interrupting her father’s plans to marry her off, and begs to be trained as a knight instead. He’s horrified and disgusted at the thought of his daughter fighting. The sequence feels like a more mature version of Brave’s Merida shooting fer her own hand.
Those flashbacks, and the motivations they introduce for the heroine and the villain, are the weakest parts of The Princess — simplistic and clunkily inserted into the main action plot line. Thankfully, they’re just a small part of the overall experience, which focuses more extensively on sick fight sequences. The sometimes gory violence the princess visits on her captors is so extensive that Julius and his lackeys spend much of the movie assuming there’s a vigilante guard in their midst. They’re surprised to find out that no, it was the princess all along! Their utter shock at the idea of a woman fighting as well as a man is a bit overdone, but the sheer viciousness she brings to her fairy-tale story does make it more compelling.
It’s intrinsically satisfying to see a fantasy princess in a ripped, bloody wedding dress, stabbing the men who seek to control her. Princesses and other wealthy women shedding their constraining dresses and corsets for more battle-ready looks isn’t new: See again, Merida’s dress bursting at the seams as she readies her bow, Elizabeth trading her gowns for more practical fighting attire in Pirates of the Caribbean, or more recently, Grace battling her predatory new in-laws in Ready or Not.
But because princesses are usually shoved into the family-friendly movie category, they never get to actually look like action heroines. In this case, the princess does — and it rules. Kiet doesn’t hold back from brutality, as the princess hacks, bashes, and burns her way through her enemies. She doesn’t hesitate to plunge her sword into her assailants, and she doesn’t mull over whether killing makes her just as bad as her captors. She’s on a mission to save her family, and she’s allowed to be completely ruthless to get there. And while she certainly struggles, the movie doesn’t weirdly glorify her pain or show it in excruciating detail, unlike so many other action titles centered on women.
The side characters — particularly the princess’s enigmatic trainer, Linh (Veronica Ngo, star of Kiet’s terrific 2019 film Furie), and Julius’ right-hand woman, Moira (Olga Kurylenko) — are far more interesting than the main players. Linh is a formidable warrior, a foreigner whose trainer and uncle is one of the king’s advisors. But because this isn’t her story, we never find out anything more about her past, how she got so skilled, or how she and her uncle came to a land where the king (Ed Stoppard) is the only thing standing between them and the xenophobic locals.
Similarly, Moira, a whip-slinging femme fatale, is a sharp and capable combatant who is romantically entangled with Julius, but can’t be with him if he wants to further his political ambitions. Both of those characters are worlds more nuanced and interesting than the headstrong princess who doesn’t want an arranged marriage, but they’re relegated to background roles.
Then again, the headstrong princess who doesn’t want an arranged marriage is a genre staple, and The Princess finally allows the full catharsis of seeing said princess stab enemies and shove them out of windows. Every other version of the headstrong princess character has felt restrained by comparison, likely because the filmmakers were aiming for family-friendly ratings. But every iteration of this trope walked so this princess could brutally rampage. Shrek’s Fiona split-kick the Merry Men so the star of The Princess could slice someone’s head off. The formula is simple, and the characters are for the most part just stock archetypes. This is a story that seems like it’s been done before — but not to the glorious bloody extent that The Princess indulges.
The Princess is now streaming on Hulu, and on Disney Plus in some non-U.S. territories.