Although “inspired by true events,” “The Woman King” is clearly not tied to them, using the underlying story of 19th-century warrior women in an African kingdom as a starting point for a moving action vehicle, augmented by many. of the melodrama That combination provides a strong showcase for the stars, with a cast and backdrop that serve to freshen up their old formula.
Regal as always, Viola Davis provides the film with its solid core as General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, known as the Dahomey Amazons, a unit of women who swear off marriage and motherhood to practice martial arts and defend the kingdom. It’s an egalitarian vein within a society where the king (John Boyega) still owns an expanding harem.
The entry point into this warrior culture comes through Nawi (“Thuso Mbedu of the Underground Railroad,” with another powerful performance against a vast canvas), an independent-minded and headstrong young woman who refuses to marry for money, which ultimately prompts to her father frustrated for leaving her in the palace.
There, she is taken under the wing of Izogie (Lashana Lynch, adding to an action resume that includes “Captain Marvel” and “No Time to Die”), and trained to undergo the brutal regime that will eventually admit her into this elite corps. troops
The boot camp that follows, sure to serve as inspiration for modern training programs, proceeds in concert with preparation for a possible war against a rival kingdom, the Oyo Empire, which has extorted tribute from Dahomey for years. Nanisca, meanwhile, urges the king to abandon his involvement in the slave trade, arguing that selling captured enemies to Europeans has created “a dark circle” as they increasingly encroach on their lands.
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Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”), the sweeping contours of the story are simply too much to digest, especially with the various subplots and Nanisca’s backstory thrown into the mix. (The screenplay is by Dana Stevens, who shares story credit with actor Maria Bello).
Shot in South Africa, the film helps bridge some of the exposition gap by opening with a brutal action sequence, showing just how fierce Nanisca and her loyal soldiers can be. It is the first of several of its kind, and although the scenes are carefully shot to mitigate the gore, the level of violence and the form of war are such that the PG-13 rating seems questionably generous.
Nanisca worries that her warriors “do not know that evil is coming,” a mockery of the pending battle against the Oyo. But “The Woman King” perhaps excels most in portraying this fascinating subculture given the time and place, playing as a celebration of African traditions while incorporating a decidedly modern tone and still catering to the escapist demands of a Friday night audience.
Prince-Bythewood achieved that last goal with a fast-paced and great musculature of the exercise, with a major assist from Terence Blanchard’s epic score. With its all-female and almost entirely black cast, the film could give a welcome boost to other projects that have historically struggled in terms of studio support.
Somehow, the film manages to feel like a throwback to action movies of old while featuring people who were rarely allowed in prominent roles back then. If the ending is a bit too busy to be as exciting as intended, by then, “The Woman King” has made the most of its formidable arsenal.
“The Woman King” opens in US theaters on September 16. It is rated PG-13.