In early 19th century West Africa the Kingdom of Dahomey faces threats from its large neighboring nation, the Oyo Empire. Captives on both sides get sold to Europeans as slaves. Dahomey’s King Ghezo (John Boyega) deliberates on whether to continue this practice. In these conflicts he relies on the counsel and, moreso, the physical strength of the Agojie, a group of warrior women whose operation is part nunnery, part extreme dojo.
The trailer for The Woman King may confuse viewers into thinking they’re seeing scenes from a certain popular superhero franchise with a sequel dropping soon, and that’s likely by design. Ads have centered on the action and the legend – repeated quickly at the head of this film – of an African monarchy protected by an army led by mighty warrior women. But despite the gymnastic fight choreography the film plays less like a superhero saga and instead more resembles a sped-up version of 90s and 00s period epics, with courtly intrigue and large armies made up of flesh and blood actors. A shocking amount of flesh and blood for a PG-13 affair, frankly. There’s also the requisite romance, though in keeping with the Agojie warriors’ pledge of chastity it’s mostly sidelined in favor of the mentorship story between Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a young warrior who joins after rejecting her arranged marriage and the unit’s leader Nanisca (Viola Davis).
Mbedu spits fire without sacrificing the vulnerability that made her the memorable lead in The Underground Railroad. The rest of the cast similarly has recognizable faces given refreshingly meaty roles. Lashana Lynch gets a reprieve from Marvel and James Bond sidekick gigs and pops as a commander in the Agojie with a liking for whiskey (“the only good thing white men brought here”). Boyega continues to expand his persona beyond his Star Wars notoriety, though even with the clue in the movie’s title there would be no doubt to the most commanding presence in any given scene.
The movie’s athletic heartbeat comes from Viola Davis as the would-be Woman King herself. Davis so naturally fits into a role of noble leadership it’s a little surprising the closest she’s played to royalty is Ma Rainey. She lets the audience in on Nanisca’s pain and fear in close-ups without sacrificing an inch of believability as a scimitar-wielding badass in the wides. Actors have been praised by saying they could captivate an audience while reading a phonebook. Davis could do this without reading it aloud.
This balance of feeling and ferocity separates The Woman King from most modern action movies, as does the captivating nighttime cinematography courtesy Polly Morgan (A Quiet Place Part II, Where the Crawdads Sing). Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, working from a script by Dana Stevens and Maria Bello(!), brings her skill with onscreen relationships from her Love & Basketball days and translates it to action filmmaking better than in her Netflix effort The Old Guard. The choreography still has a lot of fantasy – fighters flip over and around each other in ways Braveheart extras could only envy – but it avoids weightlessness, and the sound design sells the heft of the punches and weaponry. Using the familiar beats of its script as a stunt trampoline, nothing about The Woman King particularly surprises -except how good it feels to see the legendary done right.