The studio pitch for Hulu’s new direct-to-streaming action thriller The Princess probably went something like this: “What if we crossed The Princess Bride with The Raid: Redemption?” Honestly, though, that logline makes the film sound better than it is. The Princess is a dizzying, hyperviolent spectacle that blends nonstop combat with a decidedly progressive moral vision, resulting in an eminently GIF-able — but emotionally sterile — finished product.
The eponymous Princess (Joey King, whose breakout role was Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby), who’s never given a proper name, inhabits a quasi-fantastical European kingdom devoid of magic or monsters on the model of The Princess Diaries’ Genovia. Her liberal but somewhat traditionalist father refuses to allow her to train as a knight — despite the fact that the kingdom’s army is fully gender-integrated — and instead pledges her in marriage to the roguish Julius. When the Princess reneges on the deal, an incensed Julius invades, taking the royal family hostage and confining the Princess atop a tower in advance of her nuptials.
The Princess finds herself alone in her bedroom — no handsome prince required to wake her — and promptly kills her guards. From there, it’s a nonstop battle to descend the tower floor by floor and defeat Julius. The rest of the film plays out as a linear, propulsive action sequence that may be bludgeoning and mindless, but at least is never dull.
Credit where it’s due: this film’s fight choreography is superb. Vanishingly few movies today depict sustained sword-to-sword battles — much less with broadswords rather than dueling foils — but there are plenty of them here. In an intensely physical role, King turns in an admirably committed performance and appears to be enjoying herself immensely. And it’s worth noting that, in a post-Game of Thrones world where medieval-themed storytelling is often associated with graphic sexual violence, there’s something charmingly retro about a story where the villain’s master plan involves merely compelling the heroine to marry him.
But beyond the high-octane action, there’s virtually nothing here of substance. The Princess herself, for all her combat skill, is a dead-eyed cipher, capable of executing nameless goons by the dozens while remaining coldly unmoved. Her impassivity in the face of massive bloodshed is so jarring that it reads as positively inhuman, particularly since the audience is led to believe she’s never actually seen real combat before. This gives the proceedings onscreen a distinctly video game-like feel, particularly by the third act.
In the same vein, Julius’s motivations are almost cartoonishly fascistic. He waxes poetic about the need for a politics of strength and his opposition to the kingdom’s tolerant policies (as one might expect, the carefully calibrated level of diversity on display in this realm would be the envy of an Ivy League admissions office). There’s no depth to this character, no whisper of possibility that effective governance might require hard tradeoffs — just blatant badness. Yawn.
Perhaps most notable is the movie’s gender politics. They’re clearly engineered to be “empowering,” but they read onscreen as merely grim. In the film’s hard-edged universe, the only kind of “femininity” worth praising is the kind that manifests as action stardom. More specifically, for The Princess’s heroines, to be a fully realized person mostly means to be capable of killing things as effectively as men. Womanhood is collapsed almost completely into the male warrior ideal: indeed, the film even concludes with the Princess’s younger sister, Violet, showing an interest in the blade.
Isn’t this a kind of “toxic masculinity” in its own way, though? Is there no place for mothers, scholars, artisans, or anyone else whose primary characteristic isn’t their combat prowess? In its haste to make all its characters into budget-edition Katniss Everdeens, The Princess takes on a decidedly misanthropic edge.
If any of these concerns were raised during production, they clearly went unheeded. And perhaps to even discuss them is to miss the point. Well-crafted action sequences notwithstanding, this is a film tailor-made for TikTok reactions, one that reflects a depressing disinterest in ever moving beyond the level of direct-to-video schlock. Save your time.