‘The Princess’ Review: Joey King Saves Herself In Terrific ‘Die Hard’ Clone

Debuting today on Hulu, 20th Century Studio’s The Princess is such a winning concept (“Die Hard, with a princess trapped in a tower”) that I am somewhat shocked it took until 2022 to exist as a movie. As with Mera in Brave, King’s protagonist (Joey King) comes to blows with her parents over refusing to wed a power-hungry suitor (Domenic Cooper), but this film doesn’t try to “both sides” the notion of forced marriage. A rejecting wedding proposal sends Julius into a violent coup, Thanks to years of training from a trusted adviser (Veronica Ngo), she can react accordingly when she is knocked out and chained to her bedroom atop the tower. Within minutes she has freed herself and killed the first of many, many enemy soldiers.

Running a lean 91 minutes, Le-Van Kiet’s relentless, ultraviolent and unapologetically pulpy actioner delivers exactly what its hyperactive trailer promises, which itself merits a tip of the hat. Joey King takes her turn as an action hero, and the bloody, R-rated flick offers a kind of skewed variation of Disney’s tried-and-true “She isn’t your normal princess” trope. While Tangled’s Rapunzel was the first Disney princess to hold a weapon (a frying pan), The Princess features its title character slashing, hanging, beating and otherwise killing the hell out of copious lecherous, traitorous enemy combatants. While I’m not going to argue that The Princess is “the movie we need right now,” there’s an undercurrent of rage and despair over how a society that devalues women leads to circumstances of this nature.

Unlike, say, Peter Hyams’ The Musketeer which sold itself as a Three Musketeers movie done in the style of late 90’s/early 2000’s martial arts and then delivered essentially a single climactic sequence of “what we came to see,” The Princess delivers its hook in spades. It’s perilously close to being non-stop action, with most of the plot (understandably) being dealt with in past-tense flashbacks. It’s certainly another example of a solid action movie that’s not based on a video game but is inspired by them, with a certain “level to level” combat that keeps the blood flowing. Yes, it’s 1.5 hours of “Joey King plays a morally justified princess who kills bad guys in violent and creative ways,” but it works as sold like gangbusters.

The decently scaled and refreshingly “big” action flick is, by default, the best Die Hard knock-off since White House Down. It’s also another example of a streaming premiere that in a prior generation would have been a solid theatrical hit. It’s just one of a handful of 20th Century and Searchlight flicks that will go straight to Hulu this summer. I’m not saying all six of these pictures would have been theatrical hits, but they are all theatrical in terms of star power, production value and artistic intent. In a summer genuinely lacking in regular theatrical releases, the notion of formally Fox and Searchlight being turned into a straight-to-Hulu delivery service sticks out as a key reason for a slight slate. And yes, the films thus far are fairly good.

The Princess joins Eugenio Derbez and Samara Weaving’s The Valet (a decent culture clash, Hollywood-centric romantic comedy that’s smart enough not to pair up its May/December leads), Andrew Ahn’s Pride and Prejudice-inspired same-sex rom-com party flick Fire Island (starring Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang) and the poignant and insightful Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. The latter stars Emma Thompson as a widow who hires a sex worker (Daryl McCormack) to fulfill decades of unmet sexual desires. Amazon struck out theatrically with the far more high-profile Late Night in the summer of 2019, but these films going to streaming furthers the notion that streaming is the place for grown-up, inclusive and/or LGBT-friendly entertainment (ditto when the likes of Fear Street and Mitchells Vs. The Machines end up on Netflix instead of theaters).

Still on tap for the summer are Not Okay (July 29), which stars Zoey Deutch and Dylan O’Brien in a tale of faked social media influence gone wrong and Prey on August 5. The 1700’s-set actioner stars Amber Midthunder as a young Comanche Nation warrior who must step up when her people are hunted by an invisible, heavily armed alien predator. Yes, the Dan Trachtenberg-directed and Patrick Aison-penned flick is a prequel to Predator, and thus the fifth installment (or seventh if you count the Alien vs. Predator flicks) in the ongoing franchise. Yes, The Predator was a bomb in 2018, but it cost too much ($88 million) so its $159 million global gross made it a failure compared to Predators ($127 million on a $40 million budget in 2010).

There’s a case to be made that putting those six films in theaters would have only boosted their streaming viewership potential. Even if Prey earned less than Predators, The Valet didn’t compare to Derbez’s Anna Faris-starring Overboard remake ($91 million on a $12 million budget) and Emma Thompson’s sexual awakening dramedy performed even worse than her late-night talk show comedy ($22 million worldwide), their existence as theatrical releases would increase their visibility and increase their potential revenue both in theaters and in post-theatrical. As I noted yesterday, the VOD charts are dominated by theatrical releases, and theatrical films do pull bigger viewership than (most) streaming-specific titles. If Hollywood wants to prioritize streaming viewership, then maybe some theatrical losses might be part of the overall balance sheet.

I had a grand time with The Princess, to the point where, yes, I might watch it again with my (older) kids. Joey King makes a fine action hero, and the action sequences deliver in terms of raw carnage, variety and quality. It’s not high art, but it’s a lot better than the slew of frustratingly middling female-centric action movies (Gunpowder Milkshake, Ava, Kate, Jolt, etc.) that have dominated streaming over the last two years. That it’s arriving courtesy of a once-independent studio now trapped in a tower by Walt Disney makes its existence a grim irony. That it and Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers went straight to streaming instead of getting at least a cursory theatrical release implies that better choices need to be made about what movies go where.

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