Simply put, some performers cannot convincingly play characters in period or costume pieces. They always stick out like a sore thumb and their misaligned screen presence takes you out of the movie. Think Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mila Kunis in Oz, the Great and Powerful, the entire cast of Your Highness, and many others over the decades. With the arrival of The Princess, you can add Joey King to that list.
No matter how tough some stunt training makes Joey King look in this action romp, she looks like the cherubic California kid from The Kissing Booth Netflix movie series trying to play dress-up. Add in a rough script requiring her to deliver lines with one of the worst attempts at a breathy European accent of etiquette this side of Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves and because King is the lead, compared to those supporting role examples, her failings are enough to sink the whole movie.
King plays an unnamed daughter of certain royalty who wakes up after being drugged to sleep. She is dressed in a poofy white wedding dress and finds herself locked in the highest room of a towering castle. The man who put her there is the ruthless Julius, played by the sniveling and sly Dominic Cooper. Our princess spurned Julius at the altar, refusing an arranged marriage brokered by her heir-less king and queen (Ed Stoppard of The Pianist and Unorthodox’s Alex Reid) and to save their fledgling kingdom.
To escape this room and the whole of this predicament, the princess reveals and leans on a trained and courageous ability to fight and handle herself. Awake and threatened, a switch is flipped in the woman that is telegraphed by composer Natalie Holt’s score shifting from flute and strings to a punchy mash of rock. She dispatches her two guards in a violent brawl and now has a weapon. That opening scuffle becomes the bloody and brutal tone-setter of The Princess.
Moving like a video game, The Princess descends from the ominous perch to the lower levels in hopes of rescuing the woman’s parents and younger sister (Katelyn Rose Downey, in her feature debut) from the wrath of Julius and his deadly, whip-wielding aide Moira (professional Bond girl and supervillain Olga Kurylenko). There are dozens of rank-and-file soldiers to dispatch and a few minibosses of nastier challenge along the way. We know Julius and Moira will be the last.
It’s just a matter of our princess slashing her way to that showdown floor-by-floor. Director Le-Van Kiet (Furie) provides space for a few action set pieces to unfold without hyper-cutted editing. The kills, even the more creative ones, are silly and unlikely because our not-so-pixie princess is protected with enough plot armor to incredibly beat every comer and seemingly heal on command.
Debuting screenwriters Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton have set a course to splatter R-rated violence in a fairy tale-like setting. The “-like” is in there because The Princess is not adapted from any specific source, though it rips off a smidge of this and a dash of that from other stories. Sure, plenty of classic fantasy tales come from darker roots (use The Little Mermaid as an example) than the ones you see cultivated for Disney movies. However, there’s a leap and an art to making the grim (and the Grimm) charming in this genre. That feat requires compelling circumstances and engaging characters.
The Princess is horribly fragmented in those two areas. Without a solid source or complete idea, the vagueness of it all, right down to not even bothering to give Joey King’s character a name alongside everyone else, does the narrative no favors. The movie falls flat building lore or, frankly, reasons to care. There’s no mystique that matters in nondescriptness. The in-movie mantra of “fighting from the heart” with “patience and focus” are two things the movie doesn’t have.
To The Princess’s credit, the teams of fight choreographer/coordinator Kefi Abrikh (Fox Hunt) and stunt coordinator Stanimir Stamatov (Memory, Extraction 2) coached Joey King up to mete out the violence. She throws herself into the fights in energetic ways, especially alongside her character’s mentors Lin and Khai, played by Veronica Ngo (The Old Guard) and Kristofer Kamiyasu (Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard). They are the real deal and not pretenders, yet they are placed here as little more than ethnic checkboxes.
When the main star is this bad in an adventure movie like The Princess, little can cover the collapse. In other films, saving graces can be found in the areas of the spectacle. The Princess doesn’t have those rescuing qualities. Dominic Cooper is forced to overact while Olga Kurylenko seems to be on disinterested autopilot. The special effects are laughable and the set and costume elements feel more cheap than inspired. As aforementioned, Holt’s musical choices have a medieval adventure spine and then muddies it with all the mismatched rock, including an awful “White Wedding” Billy Idol cover by Bukola in the closing credits.
The worst is when Joey King doesn’t have to swing a sword or punch out an opponent. Scene after scene, her dramatic presence cannot match her fighting stamina of girl power. In one scene, she sauntered over to a trio prison guards, snatched one of their mugs, chugged it, burped loudly, dropped some lame zinger after, and then started the fight that tallied three more easy kills. Later, King has a short monologue to Dominic Cooper on heaven and hell where she’s really trying to sell the anger and heft, but cannot eloquently do it. Blame the script for too many clunker scenes like these.