Fierce, furious and feminine, “The Woman King” is an action picture that isn’t so much “released” as “unleashed.
It’s a period piece built around history’s real Amazons — the all-female palace guard of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Oscar winner Viola Davis stars in it, heading a cast of equally formidable women who march us through a fictional but historically-sound story of resistance, fighting the good fight and stirring up “good trouble” in an Africa “corrupted” by the racist European slave trade.
Talk about a movie of its moment.
Women headline this. Women produced it, including Davis and her acclaimed-actress friend Maria Bello (who also gets a “story” credit). Gina Prince-Bythewood takes what she learned making “Old Guard” and applies it to a much better script — by Dana Stevens. And women on screen charge through it, battling abusers, enslavers, Africans and Europeans to set things to right in a small kingdom threatened at all sides by larger powers.
As depicted here, the Agojie were the Green Berets of their era — a committed combat elite. They were an African, asexual (apparently) Sacred Band of Thebes, women trained from youth to fight and work as a unit because Dahomey was losing so many of its men to larger kingdoms’ addiction to the slave trade.
Davis plays Nanisca, general of this corps. With her fearsome lieutenants (wonder women Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim), she is tasked with carrying out the policies of the new king, Ghezo (John Boyega). And what Ghezo wants is to get out from under the domineering thumb of the Oyo Empire.
Dahomey pays the Oyo tribute, and still Oyo goons and their allies raid villages and take captives to sell to the Portuguese. The film opens on Nanisca and her ululating Dahomey Team Six staging a merciless counter-raid to free hostages and butcher the bad guys who stole them.
The film’s story is largely seen through the eyes of a petite teen (South African newcomer Thuso Mbedu) who will not accept her father’s arranged marriage to a much older man who thinks slapping her in front of her dad will seal the match.
Nawi is physically smaller than the rest of her recruiting class. She is mouthy, talking back to the battle-scarred general, who lectures them “We need SMART warriors. The dumb ones die quickly.”
With a little instruction and a lot of training and discipline, maybe she’ll make the cut.
“Always obey Izuke,” a lieutenant (Lynch, of “No Time to Die” and “Captain Marvel) snaps. Nawi pauses, confused. “I am Izuke!”
A towering, ruthless new general (Jimmy Odukoya) is their Oyo foe. He leads from horseback, and is most intent on grabbing hostages for the Portuguese (Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Jordan Bolger) who show up at the slave port controlled by the Oyo.
Nanisca must mold her fighting force, shake off off her injuries and advancing years, battle her own trauma, outsmart her foes and out-maneuver the king’s wives and persuade her monarch that maybe Dahomey should opt out of this slave trade economy altogether.
The script has some old fashioned touches. One of the Portuguese (Bolger) is the son of a kidnapped Dahomeyan mother, and could be somebody’s love interest. The “change our economy” to get out of slave trading messaging seems revisionist and “modern.”
Prince-Bythewood and the screenwriter haven’t yet mastered the perfect drop-the-mike moment, giving the ending an anti-climactic touch or two…or three.
But the production design, the training sequences, the visceral, breathless and just-plain-cool combat, the singing, dancing, parading and mourning by an impressive cast drive the picture and pull us along with it.
Davis lets us see a seriously badass broad’s vulnerable side, mastering the fight choreography and reminding us at every moment that she’s one of the best actresses of her generation. She’s the thespian rising tide that lifts every other performance around her.
Lynch, Odukoya, Atim and Mbedu are her stand-out support. And Boyega seems perfectly cast as a young, impressionable king who’d like to impose his will on all his subjects, but with the good sense to listen to the tougher-than-him woman with the better ideas.
“The Woman King” reminds us that the real history we don’t know makes for a great story, and a grand action yarn. You want to learn where all the good parts and “realistic” elements of that comic book movie “Black Panther” and its sequel came from? Gaze upon “The Woman King,” and be thrilled.
Rating: PG-13 (Sequences of Strong Violence|Partial Nudity|Brief Language|Some Disturbing Material|Thematic Content)
Cast: Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, Thuso Mbedu, Sheila Atim, Jordan Bolger, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, Jayme Lawson, Adrienne Warren, Jimmy Odukoya and John Boyega
Credits: Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, scripted byDana Stevens. A Sony Tristar release.
Running time: 2:06