As soon as Viola Davis rises from the bushes as General Nanisca in “The Woman King,” I knew this film was going to kick ass. Throughout her career, whether she was in “Doubt,” “Out of Sight” or “The Help,” this Oscar-winning actress has proven to be a force of nature and one to be reckoned with. When it came to the film version of “Fences,” the question was not if Davis could her own with Denzel Washington, but if Denzel could hold his own with her. As for her work as Amanda Waller in those “Suicide Squad” movies, she made the crew of delinquents and outright criminals working under her command look like a bunch of pussies. She does the same here as she dominates the screen to where no one with a half a brain should even dare to question how lethal she can be as she lays waste to her oppressors with little in the way of remorse.
“The Woman King” takes us back to the 1800s to the kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa. There is an opening prologue which tells us of the peril this kingdom is under that is a little hard to follow, but the main thing to know is that the kingdom is protected by an all-female unit of warriors known as the Agojie. As the opening sequence makes clear, they are far and away the most feared warriors on the continent as we watch them crush their opponents ever so confidently. Of course, you don’t see a lot of blood here as this is a PG-13 rated motion picture, but all the bones breaking and shattering are here on display, reminding us once again that the MPAA remains far more comfortable with violence than love-making.
Yes, this group of warriors did exist in reality. Actress Maria Bello became aware of this piece of history while visiting Africa, and she serves as “The Woman King’s” co-producer and co-writer for good reason. Granted, the movie’s story does deal with inescapable cliches and familiar storylines to where the term “inspired by true events” this movie is being promoted with makes a lot more sense than “based on a true story,” and you all know how I feel about that term which has long since become useless to me.
The story follows certain conventions and employs familiar cliches in an effort to make us follow and understand these characters on a general level. While General Nanisca (Davis) is well-regarded as a warrior, others such as the many wives of King Ghezo (John Boyega) see her as a mere commoner, unworthy of such admiration. Of course, one of those wives gets her comments thrown back in her face upon being reminded of how she hid behind locked doors while the kingdom was being attacked. Be careful when you talk shit about others!
Into the plot comes the young Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) who is about to sold to a man who is to be her husband. This prospective husband, however, is quick to smack Nawi in the face when she does not respond to him, and her response is to shove him back several feet to where he lands flat on his back. Instead of fighting back, he cowers away, blaming Nawi’s father for raising such crazy children.
From there, Nawi’s father drags her to the area where the Agojie train and presents her as a gift to the king. It’s punishment for her not accepting a husband, but even she knows this is her only destiny. Like the Jedi, the Agojie cannot marry or have children, and this is a destiny she is prepared to take on. Of course, it will come with many bumps and bruises throughout time.
Okay, let me get to the performances. Like I said, Davis is a force of nature, and it is so thrilling to watch her use every fiber of being and body to portray such a hardened warrior. Just from looking at her eyes, she makes you believe this is a warrior who has survived many battles and endured much pain and suffering others would never be able to handle. It’s tempting to compare General Nanisca to Tom Berenger’s character of Sgt. Barnes from “Platoon,” but Nanisca still has a lot of heart under that hardened gaze of hers.
Upon her entrance into training, Nawi is met by another Agojie warrior, Izogie, and she is played by “No Time to Die’s” Lashana Lynch who is wickedly good here. Izogie is also a hardened warrior, but she still has a wide smile and an undeniably sharp sense of humor even after all she has been through. It’s a blast watching her as she steals the show in the same way she did opposite Daniel Craig when she portrayed another 007.
Special attention should be also given to Mbedu who takes her character of Nawi from an innocent soul to a true warrior. She runs the gamut of emotions throughout and embodies this soldier-in-training with tremendous enthusiasm to where you believe every part of her rough and tumble journey on an emotional and physical level. You have to respect the actor/actress who can make a transition like this in a motion picture because it is never easy.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball,” “Beyond the Lights” and “The Old Guard”) keeps things moving at a steady pace throughout, and the film never lags for a second. She has created one of the more engrossing and action-packed films of 2022 and has brought us a piece of history which will never be easily forgotten once you have watched the action in front of you.
As I write this, “The Woman King” has since earned an A+ rating on CinemaScore and debuted at the top of the U.S. box office. It’s a thrill to see it doing so well in this day and age. Still, part of me wished the filmmakers had given the action more of the “Braveheart” brutality as there were plenty of bones and bodies being crushed, but not much blood. I mean, come on, this is war and battle we are talking about. Seeing it getting the PG-13 treatment feels like a bit of a cheat, but perhaps there is a director’s cut just waiting around the corner.
Regardless, “The Woman King” is both thrilling and endlessly enthralling throughout, and it would be a shame if you missed it on the silver screen. And when you walk out of the theater, the only words you should say, particularly about Viola Davis, is “not bad for a human.”
* * * ½ out * * * *