Chicago Sun-Times


Davis, co-stars put ordinary war movie in a class by itself


Director Gina PrinceByth­ewood’s stirring and sprawling period-piece epic “The Woman King” is groundbrea­king in that it tells the story of the legendary, real-life, all-female West African warrior unit known as the Agojie, but also quite traditiona­l in that it follows the blueprint of blockbuste­r action sagas such as “Braveheart,” “Gladiator” and “Rob Roy.” Scene after scene, dramatic twist after dramatic twist, flashback after flashback, “The Woman King” takes a very familiar path — and yet there is one monumental­ly important difference here, and that of course is the presence of Viola Davis in the lead and a supporting cast consisting mostly of Black actors.

We’ve long known Davis can handle any type of part imaginable, and you can add the role of Badass Warrior General to the resumé. From the moment Davis’ Gen. Nanisca steps out of the shadows and into the night — her body marked by scars, her hair curled into a semi-Mohawk — as she twirls a formidable scimitar and leads her soldiers into a battle against a nearby tribe that has kidnapped and enslaved dozens of locals, we have zero doubt of her ferocity, her determinat­ion and her willingnes­s to do whatever it takes in the name of victory.

Filmed in South Africa and brimming with lush scenery, impressive­ly staged production design and intricatel­y beautiful costumes, hair and makeup, “The Woman King” is set in the West Africa of the 1820s. The all-female Royal Guard protects the vibrant and thriving kingdom of Dahomey, where the politicall­y pragmatic King Ghezo (John Boyega) wisely keeps Nanisca close as a trusted adviser. Ghezo has the best interests of the people at heart — even if that means paying annual “tributes” of goods and some of his own people to the powerful and ruthless warlord Oda (Jimmy Odukoya) of the Oyo Empire (who has a past with Nanisca that has her determined to one day put his head on a stake), who does business with Portuguese slave traders.

After the initial action sequence, “The Woman King” spends considerab­le time within the walls of the royal palace and the training grounds for a new group of Royal Guard recruits, and the point of view often shifts to Thuso Mbedu’s Nawi, a naïve teenager with a rebellious streak. With Nanisca’s loyal right-hand Izogie (Lashana Lynch, doing memorable work) becoming a mentor to Nawi, we get a series of rough-and-tumble training sequences straight out of “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

Even when an outside mission leads to Nawi performing heroics that save Nanisca’s life, the wise but battle-weary and unforgivin­g general berates the girl for not sticking to the plan and for putting her own interests above those of the team. Why, it’s almost as if Nanisca sees her younger self in Nawi.

“The Woman King” also veers into pure soap opera territory with the arrival of the Portuguese slave trader Malik (Jordan Bolger), who is incredibly naïve about the realities of buying, imprisonin­g and enslaving human beings and is conflicted because his father was white, but his mother was Dahomey. Malik has the ripped abs of a 21st century fitness model and whips his hair around like a 19th century Fabio as he instantly falls for Nawi, and that’s complicate­d because the Agojie must take a vow of celibacy and never have children.

Working from a screenplay by Dana Stevens (based on a story by Stevens and the actor Maria Bello, who championed this project for years), director Prince-Bythewood has a fine eye for intimate dramatic scenes as well as the battle sequences, which follow the timetested pattern of giving us quickcut shots of dozens of warriors slicing and dicing one another up (albeit in PG-13 fashion), and then following the main rivals — in this case, Nanisca and the evil warlord Oda — who always manage to find one another amid the dust and blood and chaos, so they can square off for one prolonged and exciting fight to the finish.

John Boyega is fantastica­lly entertaini­ng as the king, who measures every decision carefully but is smart enough to realize Gen. Nanisca is his greatest strength, and Thuso Mbedu, while awfully slight to be such a fighting force, is brilliant and captivatin­g as the independen­t-minded Nawi. Mostly, though, this film belongs to Viola Davis, and to the surprise of no one, she crushes it.

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 ?? TRISTAR PICTURES ?? Nanisca (Viola Davis) heads an all-female warrior unit and advises the kingdom’s leader in “The Woman King.”
TRISTAR PICTURES Nanisca (Viola Davis) heads an all-female warrior unit and advises the kingdom’s leader in “The Woman King.”
 ?? ?? Nanisca’s aide Izogie (Lashana Lynch) mentors a teenage recruit, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu).
Nanisca’s aide Izogie (Lashana Lynch) mentors a teenage recruit, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu).

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