Viola Davis kills in African war epic



movie review

Running time: 126 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sequences of strong violence, some disturbing material, thematic content, brief language and partial nudity). In theaters Sept. 16.

TORONTO — “The Woman King” marks a ceasefire between two long-warring foes: Action and acting. 

During the Viola Davis-led movie, which premiered Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, we are whisked back to the glory days of the 1980s and ‘90s when big budgets, battle scenes, romance and drama were routinely mixed into one crowd-pleasing package.

What a refreshing break from what usually constitutes an epic nowadays — mixing Ant-Man and the Hulk. 

In the robustly entertaining “Woman King,” Davis plays Nanisca, a seasoned general in an all-female fighting force called the Agojie in the African Kingdom of Dahomey during the 1800s. They were a real and fascinating part of history.

(Their actual fights back then probably didn’t look so much like “The Matrix,” but hooray for Hollywood.)

Dahomey is at war with the Oyo Empire, which has been capturing innocents and selling them into slavery. Nanisca isn’t gonna take any of that, and she is supported in her ire by her badass lieutenants Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim, a fabulous British stage actress who deserves greater recognition). 

At the movie’s core is a new group of recruits who arrive at the group’s palace training ground — Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), whose dad sent her away after she refused to marry a suitor; Ode (Adrienne Warren), a captive who gets the chance to train; and Fumbe (Masali Baduza), a girl rescued from the slave trade. 

All three are memorable, but especially Mbedu who conceals a stealthy Arya Stark killer instinct behind a sweet exterior.

Viola Davis' Nanisca leads a fighting force in "The Woman King."
Viola Davis’ Nanisca leads a formidable fighting force in “The Woman King.”
Courtesy of TIFF

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood gives us good old fashioned training sequences, like “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid.” The women’s time at camp also brings to mind “Mulan,” but nobody here is singing “Be A Man.” There are some fun sword-wielding dance sequences in front of the King (John Boyega) though.

Now focused and battle-ready, the ensemble (well, their stunt doubles anyway) enact some of the year’s best action scenes. Unsparing yet graceful, the wake you up and grab you by the collar. They pile up bodies like Davis piles up Oscar nods.

Prince-Bythewood is one of the few directors out there churning out consistently solid action flicks. Her last film, “The Old Guard” for Netflix, was leagues better than anything the Russo brothers have been able to deliver for the streamer. She has a proven flair for merging feeling with fireworks.

Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, a new recruit in the Agojie.
Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, a new recruit in the Agojie.
©TriStar Pictures/Courtesy Ever

“King” doesn’t always rule.

I wasn’t sold on a “One Life To Live” twist involving Nanisca. The ploy thread was surely put there to provide more contours for the character and take advantage of Davis’ deep well of emotion. That’s great. The move still comes off as overly obvious and unnecessary. 

A drizzle of romance is also introduced between Nawi and a guilt-ridden Brazilian slave trader named Malik (Jordan Bolger), whose mother is from Dahomey and whose dad is white. He pops up here and there, and we get the impression that the production thinks giving the love story too much screen time might hurt the girl-power vibe. But then why introduce it at all? 

These are quibbles, though, with a movie that works extremely well on the whole. 

Davis, by the way, gives the sort of powerful, stoic, tormented performance we’ve come to expect from her after triumphant turns in “Doubt,” “Fences” and “How To Get Away With Murder.” But, despite the title and a rousing “Henry V” St. Crispin’s Day-style  speech, “Woman King” is an ensemble effort through and through.

They are “Woman,” hear them roar.