Mashing up genres can be hit-or-miss in Hollywood. When it works out, the film can be a fascinating blend of familiar tropes and subversive spins on the expected. When it doesn’t, it can be a frustrating jumble of elements that don’t play well together.
Fortunately, Hulu‘s The Princess falls into the former category, delivering a fast-paced action film filtered through a familiar fairytale premise, peppered with enough clever twists to provide plenty of surprises.
The Princess is directed by Le-Van Kiet, the Vietnamese-born filmmaker who earned heaps of praise for his 2019 martial arts thriller Angerwhich was selected for Academy Awards recognition and set a new record for the highest-grossing Vietnamese film of all time. Anger was lauded for its intense, brilliantly choreographed action sequences, and The Princess offers more evidence of its filmmaker’s talents in that respect with a nearly non-stop parade of complicated fight scenes.
The film commits to its fairytale premise quickly, opening with its titular princess — played by The Act actress Joey King — imprisoned in the highest room of a ridiculously tall tower. She wakes up, discovers an invading army amassing in the castle courtyard below her, and then does something you rarely see in fairytale stories: She begins to brutally pummel, stab, and otherwise dispatch everyone who gets in her way as she fights her way down the tower.
If the narrative seems simple, that’s because it is — but the R-rated film’s willingness to go all-in on action is a gamble that pays off well.
Playing the film’s heroine, King is a nice surprise in a demanding action role. Her resume thus far hasn’t exactly hinted at untapped action chops, but The Kissing Booth franchise actress looks perfectly comfortable pivoting — often literally — from one brawl to the next as her character fights her way to freedom, floor by floor. While The Princess doesn’t lean as heavily on its filmmaker’s talent for one-shot fight scenes as Angerit doesn’t exactly shy away from them, either — and King doesn’t seem to have any trouble handling the extended encounters expertly framed in Kiet’s camera.
Kiet clearly puts a lot of trust in King to keep up with the film’s talented stunt team, and that trust pays off with one impressive — and impressively distinct — sequence after another.
Like a protagonist in a video game, the enemies she faces level up with each encounter. What begins with a fight against a pair of bumbling henchmen eventually leads to her squaring off with a gargantuan, minotaur-like berserker, a knight in shining armor (another subversion of the fairytale trope, certainly), and myriad other combinations of enemies that test her mettle as she descends the tower.
At times, The Princess feels a bit like a fairytale version of The Raid: RedemptionGareth Evans’ relentless, 2011 action film that put him and star Iko Uwais on Hollywood’s radar. The Raid also featured a protagonist trapped in a building who must fight his way to freedom through a seemingly endless horde, and The Princess takes that simple (but clearly effective) idea and gives it some clever subversiveness by wrapping it in well-worn fairytale elements.
King’s character is no damsel in distress, for example, and repeatedly defies everything expected of a traditional fairytale story as she battles her way toward a showdown with the invading army’s leader: A handsome prince (played by Dominic Cooper) determined to marry her. As she works her way down the tower, her once-fluffy dress is gradually transformed into more functional, less ornamental attire, accessorized with bits of armor and tools of war she acquires along the way.
Although The Princess is largely carried by King’s performance, she has some help along the way from some talented supporting actors who also shine in the film’s action scenes.
Playing the martial-arts mentor to King’s character, Anger star Veronica Ngo makes great use of her screen time with some fantastic scenes that offer another showcase of her ability to balance narrative elements and action equally well. Similarly, Black Widow actress Olga Kurylenko continues to reward directors who cast her in action-heavy villain roles. Her performance in The Princess as the whip-wielding bodyguard of Cooper’s sociopathic prince is nearly as much fun as her memorable portrayal of the copycat assassin Taskmaster in the aforementioned Marvel movie.
While much of The Princess is a fast-moving ride that’s easy to be carried away by, the film does suffer a bit when the pace slows down to allow for some largely needless exposition.
At various points in the film, King’s character pauses to recall the events that led to her being imprisoned in the tower, how she became such a skilled warrior, and other chunks of backstory. These (mercifully brief) flashbacks often put slam the brakes on the film’s momentum without delivering much narrative return. In some cases, letting audiences form their own ideas about the backstory of King’s character might even be preferable to the explanations the film provides, as the film is at its best when you don’t know what to expect from her.
Frustrating slowdowns aside, The Princess is the sort of film that’s likely to be a pleasant surprise for audiences who take a chance on it. It takes a simple premise and makes it exciting and subversive, with enough clever reveals and expertly choreographed action woven into its narrative to keep you a willing passenger in the journey it takes you on.
Directed by Le-Van Kiet, The Princess premieres July 1 on Hulu streaming service. For more new films and TV shows on Hulu in July 2022, click here.