There’s something kind of remarkable about watching a 90-minute film that only has a single idea spread across its entire running time — “what if ‘The Raid,’ but about a fairy tale princess trying to fight her way down from the castle tower where she’s been imprisoned by an evil suitor?” — but my awe at what passes for a movie these days was no match for my disappointment in this one. Hulu’s dull and exasperatingly basic “The Princess” wastes a slew of talent on a straight-to-streaming cheapo so undercooked that it feels like an AMC psy-op designed to make you run to the nearest multiplex and beg for a ticket to whatever’s showing next. Even Gru feels good in a place like this.
While survivors of Netflix’s “The Kissing Booth” trilogy may be conditioned to expect as much from the latest Joey King vehicle (though she hardly feels responsible for this mess), anyone familiar with Le-Van Kiet’s bone-crunching “Furie” is liable to feel let down by the talented Vietnamese director’s anonymous first swing at a Hollywood action film. Despite an “R” rating, some “John Wick” bonafides, and a few welcome beatdowns from return collaborator Veronica Ngo, “The Princess” pulls nearly every one of its punches.
Beggars can’t expect to be choosers during a summer movie season that COVID has already cut off at the knees, but that isn’t enough incentive to sit through a woefully generic beat-em-up that confuses its simple premise for a sufficient plot, and mistakes its canned girlboss attitude for a personality.
Not when you could be watching a seashell with shoes on(!) in a room with 100 strangers, getting pummeled by an Elvis biopic that offers all-you-can-eat spectacle for less than $20 a pop, or sticking your face in a bathtub-sized bucket of popcorn while Tom Cruise repeatedly cucks death itself for your amusement. And definitely not when “The Great” is right there on Hulu to satisfy all of your royal needs with extreme prejudice, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is packed with far more satisfying action, and “The Bear,” well… that’s just a good show (Ayo Edibiri, Jeremy Allen White, and an infinite array of hot Italian sandwiches? In my day, we would’ve been happy to get even one of those things).
But I have come not to praise other Hulu properties, but to bury “The Princess,” so let’s take care of business. To the nominal credit of Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton’s blueprint of a script, the movie’s ultra-generic nature is by design, at least to some extent. This fable isn’t about a princess fighting back against her jailers, but rather about the princess — a dainty and helpless trope who’s desperate for a man to save her — rebelling against those expectations. That idea is not exactly clever enough to justify the film’s almost complete absence of detail or texture, but it would be wrong to ignore that “The Princess” consciously tries to transform its barebones nature from a bug into a feature. If only it were that kind of fairy tale.
Naturally, King’s character is never identified beyond her role in the (similarly nameless) kingdom. The medieval Princess wakes up handcuffed to a bed in a tower of the castle where she’s lived all her life, completely alone save for a few blurry memories of being locked there by the man she was set to marry (Dominic Cooper slums it as Julius, the sociopathic husband-to-be). The Princess had begged her father to name her his heir and keep the throne in the family, but the patriarchy can be stubborn like that.
Anyway, some rapey goons come into The Princess’ bedchamber, lamenting that she has to be kept “pure” for the wedding, to which the heroine responds by breaking her own thumb in order to slip out of the handcuffs and then using the restraints as a pair of nunchucks to break open the henchmens’ heads. The bloodshed never approaches the level of an Iko Uwais film, but I appreciated how quickly Kiet illustrates why this thing wasn’t made for Disney+.
From there, “The Princess” unfolds along the lines of a classic arcade game, to the extent that it feels less like a legitimate summer movie than it does one of the coin-op quickies that Konami used to make to cash in on them. The Princess brawls her way down the tower one indistinguishable level at a time, with each floor interrupted by an eminently skippable cut-scene in which Cooper screams about leading the people with fear and/or makes sex eyes at his leather-clad enforcer (a whip-cracking Olga Kurylenko, whose role is essentially just eye shadow in search of a character).
Even worse are the occasional flashbacks to the combat training the Princess received in secret from her kingdom’s resident fight master (Ngo) when she was a child, the most painful of which ends with the teacher imploring her student to remember that “real power comes not from your blade, but from your heart.” Bad movies often leave you asking who they were made for, but this one absolutely begs the question by interspersing sub-YA dialogue with “Mortal Kombat”-esque action. That approach might appeal to some tweens who are eager to take advantage of the fact that the MPA can’t enforce its ratings in their homes, but anyone intrepid enough to seize control of their parents’ Hulu account shouldn’t have to settle for this (psst, kids: try clicking on that button that says “Demolition Man”).
The fight scenes — clangy, hectic, and choreographed with just enough artistry and intention to make you feel Kiet’s frustration at not being able to do more with them — are far too slow and repetitive for “The Princess” to get away with having so little else to offer, but they’re bruising and kinetic enough to evidence “John Wick” mastermind Derek Kolstad’s involvement in the project. And when they fall flat, it’s not for lack of trying. Joey King isn’t quite up to snuff with Keanu Reeves (and the brief scenes where the rookie is asked to fight side-by-side with Ngo are borderline cruel), but she gives it her all; every swing feels telegraphed well in advance, but you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of them.
More to the point, there are few actors who could be expected to carry a film that does so little to lift them up in return. You’d be hard-pressed to find a fantasy movie that does less in the way of world-building, either with its story or its sets; every floor of the tower looks like the same combination of plastic wood and fake gray rocks, which makes you wonder why 20th Century Studios bothered to shoot this in Bulgaria when Medieval Times is much closer and complete with its own complimentary set of knights). Kiet strains to make something out of nothing — most strikingly during a long-take fight in which the Princess battles dozens of baddies along the tower staircase — but the combat is too clumsy to rise above the level of a theme park attraction.
“Someone needs to teach you your place,” an anonymous red shirt tells the Princess before she beats his ass to hell. Alas, there’s no mistaking where this low-rent filler belongs, as Hulu’s newest Original ironically typifies the worst (and must insulting) tendencies of an age in which streamers are trying to take the throne by force rather than trying to give movie audiences what they want.
“The Princess” will be available to stream on Hulu starting Friday, July 1.