‘The Woman King’ – Viola Davis Kicks Ass, and That’s No Surprise

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 * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ – A Highly Unusual War Movie

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2009.

“More of this is true than you would believe.”

You know something? It’s really nice to see a movie use a phrase other than “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events.” Those descriptions have all but lost their meaning because even if what we are seeing actually did happen, it has all been watered down into a formulaic feel-good movie we have seen over and over again to where we want to gag. Even worse, we keep getting suckered into seeing them even when we should know better. Either that, or there’s nothing better to watch. But this year has proven to be great as filmmakers have worked hard to subvert those worthless phrases with movies like “The Informant.” That Steven Soderbergh film made it very clear how it was based on actual events but that certain parts had been fictionalized, and it ended by saying:

“So there!”

Now we have “The Men Who Stare at Goats” which opens with the sentence at the top of this review. The story behind this one is so bizarre to where it’s almost impossible to believe any of what we are watching could ever have happened. All the same, it appears a good portion of these happenings did take place, and it makes for what is truly one of the more unique war movies I have seen in a while. The film is based on a non-fiction book by Jon Ronson which looked at how US military forces used psychic powers against their enemies. They look at New Age concepts as well as paranormal activities to achieve these goals, and of how they worked to use these methods to their advantage. The movie takes place during the Iraq war, but not to worry, the filmmakers is not trying to shove any politics down your throat (not consciously anyway).

Ronson serves as the inspiration for Bob Wilton, an investigative journalist played by Ewan McGregor. Bob’s wife has just left him for his editor and, of course, he is depressed and decides he needs to do something more important with his life in the hopes he can win her back. As a result, he travels to Kuwait to do firsthand reporting of the Iraq War, with hopes of finding someone who can get him across the border. Bob ends up having a chance meeting with a Special Forces operator named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who was in the military, but now runs a dance studio. Lyn reveals to Bob he was part of an American unit that was trained to be psychic spies or, as he eventually calls them, “Jedi warriors.” From there, Bob learns everything about this special unit which sounds like something out of a science fiction novel.

I love the irony of all the talk about “Jedi warriors” here, especially since McGregor played one in the “Star Wars” prequels.

Anyway, “The Men Who Stare at Goats” is really a cross between a war movie and a road movie as Lyn and Bob traverse the sandy dunes of the Middle East to where not everything is as it appears. This film is also a mix of comedy and drama the same way “Three Kings,” another war movie which starred Clooney, was. While the tone is largely uneven, especially towards the end, this was definitely an inspired film which kept me entertained throughout and proved to be quite unpredictable.

McGregor is playing the main character here, but let’s face it, Clooney steals the show right out from under his feet. His performance as Lyn Cassady is truly one of his most surprising and inspired. Despite how ridiculous Lyn may seem, Clooney plays him straight and never appears to be self-conscious. Seeing Clooney trying to burst clouds with his mind, and trying to reach into his enemy’s mind by staring right at them has the actor going through emotions ranging from serious to funny to downright tragic. Having gone from playing dramatic roles in movies like “Syriana” to “Michael Clayton,” Clooney once again shows he is really good at comedy and never has to strive hard for a laugh.

I don’t want to take away from McGregor though, who pulls off a convincing American accent. In many ways, his role is more of a reactionary one as he is subjected to conditions one is never fully prepared for. Bob is bewildered at what Lyn is telling him, and yet he still wants to journey further and further into Lyn’s head. I also have to give McGregor a lot of credit because he could have made it look like he was consciously aware of all those “Star Wars” references, but he never did.

But one of the great delights is watching Jeff Bridges channel his inner-dude-ness from “The Big Lebowski” into his role of Bill Django, a military leader who, after being wounded in Vietnam, has a New Age vision of combat he wants to develop. This leads him to study concepts which he incorporates into a special unit called the New Earth Army. Bill becomes a teacher of using non-lethal techniques to gain advantage over the enemy, and his training techniques are unorthodox to say the least. Bridges plays the character broadly, but not too broadly. As funny as Bridges is, he infuses Django with a disappointment which threatens to render him useless to those around him, and with a deep sense of fear and tragedy as his techniques are misused or taken advantage of by those who seek to profit from them.

Having been in London doing tons of theater, it seemed like it would require a herculean effort to bring Kevin Spacey back to the big screen. Seeing him here is a kick as he plays the real antagonist of the film, Larry Hooper. Larry is basically the Darth Vader to Bill’s Obi Wan Kenobi and Lyn’s Luke Skywalker as he takes the non-lethal methods of the New Earth Army and ends up using them for more lethal purposes. Larry ends up doing this not so much out of greed as he does resentment since Django does not consider him in the same light as Lyn. His actions bring about the downfall of the New Earth Army, and he turns all these abilities they developed into something far more insidious. From there, you will see why the movie and the book it is based on has the title it does.

Spacey has great fun as he channels the inner smugness which has enveloped Larry over time. While his role is a little more serious than the others, he still has great moments of comedy which remind us of what a talented actor he is as he balances out the serious and comedic aspects of Larry without tilting too much in one direction.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” was directed by Grant Heslov, Clooney’s business partner on many films. He has his work cut out for him here as he must find a balance between the humorous and dramatic aspects of the story. Granted, Heslov doesn’t always succeed but he creates a most unusual war movie, and it is all the more entertaining as a result. Even more telling is the way he portrays the Iraqi people in certain scenes. They are not shown as gun toting terrorists, and he captures the look of their helplessness in having to deal with a military occupation they did not ask for.

Like I said, there’s no serious politicizing of the Iraq war in this movie, so don’t feel like you are walking into some sort of trap. Like “The Hurt Locker,” it merely focuses on what those Americans in Iraq were doing in the midst of the chaos, albeit in a more comical way. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” seems almost far too bizarre to be real, but a part of you just might want it to be real. One thing’s for sure, you will never look at “Barney and Friends” in the same way ever again, assuming you ever watched it in the first place (c’mon! Don’t deny it!).

* * * ½ out of * * * *