‘The Woman King’ review: Viola Davis stars in action show about warrior women


Although “inspired by true events”, “King of the Woman” is clearly not related to them, in an African kingdom in the 19th century. Using the underlying story of 20th century warrior women as the starting point for an invigorating action vehicle, amped up with plenty. of melodrama The combination provides a strong showcase for the stars, with a cast and background that serves to refresh its old-school formula.

Regal as always, Viola Davis lends the film her strong core as General Nanisca, leader of the Agojie, known as the Dahomey Amazons, a unit of women who vow marriage and motherhood to pursue martial arts and defend the kingdom. The King (John Boyega) is the egalitarian trend of a society that still owns a vast harem.

The point of entry into this warrior culture is Nawiren (The Underground Railroad’s Thuso Mbedu, in another superb performance against a wide canvas), a headstrong, headstrong young woman who refuses to marry for money, ultimately pushing herself. frustrated father for leaving the palace.

There, they add to Izogie’s (Lashana Lynch, “Captain Marvel” and “No Time to Die”) resume of exploits and train them to endure the brutal regime that will introduce them to this elite group. the troops

The ensuing boot camp, which will surely be the source of inspiration for today’s training programs, coincides with preparations for a possible war against a rival kingdom, the Oyo Empire, which has paid homage to Dahomey for years. Nanisca, on the other hand, asks the king to withdraw from his involvement in the slave trade, arguing that the sale of captured enemies to Europeans has created a “dark circle” as more and more of them enter their lands.

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Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”), the broad contours of the story are simply a lot to digest, especially with the various subplots thrown into the mix and Nanisca’s backstory. (Screenplay by Dana Stevens, who shares story credit with actress Maria Bello.)

Shot in South Africa, the film helps bridge some expositional gaps by opening with a brutal action sequence, showing just how tough Nanisca and his loyal soldiers can be. It’s the first of several such encounters, and while the scenes are carefully shot to tone down the gore, the level of violence and the form of warfare make the PG-13 rating questionably generous.

Nanisca worries that his warriors “know no evil to come,” a tease for the fight against Oyo. But “King of the Woman” perhaps excels in depicting this fascinating subculture in its time and place, while sounding like a celebration of African traditions while embracing a decidedly modern tone, and still catering to the escapist demands of Friday night audiences.

Prince-Bythewood achieves this latter goal with lively pacing and the sheer muscularity of the exercise, aided remarkably by Terence Blanchard’s epic score. With an all-female and almost entirely black cast, the film could welcome other projects that have historically struggled in terms of studio support.

Somehow, the film manages to feel like a throwback to the action movies of old, while featuring people who were rarely allowed to play prominent roles back then. If the ending is too busy to be as quick as you’d like, by then “King of the Woman” has taken advantage of his formidable arsenal.

“The Woman King” opens in US theaters on September 16. It is rated PG-13.