The Princess Review: Joey King Tosses Fairy-Tale Values Out the Window

Practically everybody in “The Princess” has a name, except the princess. Played by “The Kissing Booth” cutie Joey King as an anything-but-passive heroine, the movie’s anonymous eponymous protagonist isn’t a proper character so much as a one-dimensional empowerment symbol: “The Princess” represents the antithesis of every fairy-tale damsel who passively sat around waiting to be whisked away or married off. She begins the movie locked in the top floor of the castle, wearing a wedding dress and iron shackles, and ends it drenched in more blood than Stephen King’s Carrie, some of it hers, but most belonging to all the men who’ve underestimated her.

Over the course of the next hour and a half, “The Princess” hardly stops to catch its breath. Whatever Disney movies may have led you to believe about royals named Ariel (she sings!) and Belle (she reads!), this one learned Krav Maga behind her father’s back, and she can incapacitate a man twice her size with little more than a hairpin. When it comes time for characters to open their mouths, screenwriters Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton draw from a seemingly bottomless bag of clichés. Still, they deserve credit for cracking a premise that half the scribblers in Hollywood have been trying to figure out — namely, how to turn the industry’s most retrograde female stereotypes into 21st-century role models. Their solution: teach her martial arts and turn her loose on a hundred or so equally nameless medieval dudes.

The resulting R-rated girls-on-top saga is built like “The Raid” — the single-location Indonesian fight movie in which a small team of cops hack their way through a criminal-infested tenement building — and executed as a sort of live-action video game by Vietnamese genre helmer Le-Van Kiet (“Furie,” “The Requin”). After besting the two guards who stop in to check on our unwilling bride-to-be, the princess works her way down the CG castle’s high tower one landing at a time, facing off against gnarly new bosses at each level.

First stop is a chamber where a he-man with a bare chest and bull-horned Teutonic helmet stops to take a very long leak. If the princess’s adversaries are supposed to get progressively more intimidating as they go along, then this satanic-looking steroid freak suggests a promising start: He’s toxic masculinity embodied — and big enough to crush her with one blow.

It’s safe to assume that some segment of viewers will find it rather implausible that King’s princess can hold her own against such rivals, though I only had to think back to Roger Moore’s tenure as James Bond to let it slide. The rickety old Brit could barely throw a punch, and half the time, when Moore was supposed to be sky jumping or skiing, he was clearly pantomiming against a rear-projection screen.

Sometimes audiences just need to be conditioned to accept a different category of action hero (the Alicia-Vikander-as-Lara-Croft effect). Built nothing like the movie’s dominatrix-style villain (former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), King has clearly put in the time for fight training. The environments look fake (running around what look like recycled TV sets, unconvincingly extended with bad CGI), but the choreography is fresh. By the end of the first scene, King’s as bloody as Bruce Willis was in “Die Hard,” which is clearly this by-no-means-dainty movie’s way of saying that she sustains damage but doesn’t let that slow her down.

Through a series of awkward flashbacks, “The Princess” shows how its heroine learned martial arts from Linh (Veronica Ngo) and Khai (Kristofer Kamiyasu). Her father (Ed Stoppard) never sanctioned those classes; he surely would have preferred to see his daughter acquiring practical skills, like how to dance the farandole and which fork to use in proper table etiquette. But now that his kingdom has been invaded by the brutal Lord Julius (a dastardly Dominic Cooper), he will be glad the princess took “Atomic Blonde” lessons instead, learning how to dispatch a stairway full of goons in a single take.

Julius plans to marry the princess and assume the throne, but like everyone in the kingdom, he can’t imagine that she would be capable of fighting back. This is her greatest advantage: Kurylenko’s whip-wielding Moira barks orders at her male underlings, no one considers that the princess is on her way to rescue her family from these barbarians. In a sense, our heroine is fighting for more than her family. She’s kicking back at the entire medieval patriarchy, such that the movie’s idea of a happy ending isn’t a royal wedding but a gigantic funeral.

Chivalrous codes aside, it was a time of “droit du seigneur” (whereby gluttonous lords helped themselves to local brides) and other unconscionable customs. A smarter script would’ve found ways to work a historical critique (or some “Shrek”-like satire, at least) into its relatively brainless string of set pieces. “The Princess” isn’t nearly as clever or twisted as 2019’s matrimony-averse “Ready or Not” (from the duo behind the recent “Scream” sequel), but it’s the kind of counterprogramming that an entire generation of viewers, altar-bound and hypnotized by decades of Disney movies, will find themselves wishing had existed when they were kids — and that no shortage of kids will internalize when screening this bloody Hulu original behind their parents’ back.

”The Princess” is available exclusively on Hulu in the U.S., and via Disney+ internationally.

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