I think it’s safe to say that Olga Kurylenko is one of our reigning Queens of Action. She’s been in the trenches for many years, in many different sizes of roles and films (HITMAN, MAX PAYNE, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, OBLIVION, THE NOVEMBER MAN, SENTINELLE, THE PRINCESS, EXTRACTION II), and she only seems to get better and better, especially when she’s headlining.
Like some of her male counterparts she has unattainable looks but such a strong screen presence she can still read as tough and/or relatable. She’s often required to portray a wider range of emotions than the fellas usually are, while also looking good kicking and stabbing and scowling. And in the tradition of Scott Adkins and others, when they finally put her in one of the big super hero movies (BLACK WIDOW) they gave her kind of a ho-hum character unworthy of her abilities. So she’s definitely one of our people.
In her latest (available on VOD) she plays a literal queen. BOUDICA: QUEEN OF WAR is the passion project of indie action master Jesse V. Johnson (PIT FIGHTER, ALIEN AGENT, GREEN STREET HOOLIGANS 2, THE BUTCHER, THE PACKAGE, SAVAGE DOG, ACCIDENT MAN, THE DEBT COLLECTOR, TRIPLE THREAT, AVENGEMENT, THE MERCENARY, DEBT COLLECTORS, HELL HATH NO FURY), credited here as Jesse Johnson, for the record. (I’ll keep an eye out in case that’s his preferred name and I shouldn’t be calling him JVJ anymore.) Johnson had been wanting to make a movie about the badass queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the Roman Empire around 61 A.D., and after working with Kurylenko on WHITE ELEPHANT he knew he had the right star for it.
When the movie starts she goes by a different name, but I didn’t catch what it is if they ever say it. She’s the loving wife of King Prasutugas (Clive Standen – Bryan Mills in the TV version of TAKEN) of the Iceni, and though they joke about their two daughters (Lilibet & Litiana Biutanaseva) having “the savage blood of the ancients running through their veins” because of her Trinovante heritage, it just seems like interesting trivia to her. She likes to dress up fancy and wear makeup and has her daughters studying Latin so they can thrive in a Roman-dominated future. She’s so bourgeois that when her kids are horrified by the sight of crucified Christians hung up at the market she assumes they were thieves and says it makes her feel safe. You know the type.
Then a crazy thing happens. A woman from a group of Trinovanti “barbarians” bows to her and calls her “Boudica.” Her servant (Fiona Thompson) explains that because she was a Trinovante who became an Iceni queen they consider her more powerful than the Emperor. The local equivalent of a MAGA-hat dipshit overhears this and starts giving her shit about her “slave” insulting the Emperor, so the Trinovante woman, Cartimanda (Lucy Martin, Vikings), chops off the guy’s hand and then does a cool spin and chops off his head too, for good measure. I like her! A great friend to have.
The queen is aghast, but able to joke about it that evening, and the whole thing inspires the king to give her a sword he got from her father as a dowry, that belonged to “the Queen of the Furies, Boudica.” Like a Hatori Hanzo blade it makes a vibrating sound, but only when she holds it.
Though the Iceni bend over backwards to kiss the ass of rude and offensive visiting official Catus Decianus (Nick Moran, THE MUSKETEER), he has the king killed and, the moment the widow is crowned queen, steals her kingdom and has her and her daughters flogged because “no female is recognized as worthy of any position of governing power.” And they brand her face. These guys I do not like.
Luckily her barbarian friends from the market show up, start slashing and stabbing motherfuckers in their sleep, rescue her from a wooden cage, put some kind of clay on her wounds, give her metal teeth (taken from a dead centurion), convince her she’s Boudica, and teacher her where to stab (neck, under the arm, under the armor).
There’s this guy named Wolfgar (Peter Franzen, Vikings) who questions her right to be leader and starts mansplaining about her sword, saying that brass is an outdated metal, blah blah blah. She shows him up and wins him over with some courageous and magical feats later described as “tricks,” but never explained. She’s given back her royal torque by the Druid Council, starts wearing cool dye on her face, proposes a daring ambush of Catus. Again, fucking Wolfgar condescendingly questions her plan, so she’s like fuck it, I’ll do it myself, which impresses everybody including Wolfgar so much that they change their minds and go with her enthusiastically, chanting her name.
Also she drinks out of a skull in one part, but it’s with the Druid Council. It’s a cultural thing.
Much of the supporting cast seems to come from the show Vikings, so they’re good at portraying the ol’ barbary. I especially like Cartimanda, Boudica’s loyal supporter since before she knew she was Boudica. Johnson’s longtime collaborator Dominiquie Vandenberg (TRUE LEGEND) has a small part as a mercenary, speaking French. There’s also an important character named Ciaran, played by another Johnson regular, Leo Gregory. He’s King Prasutagus’ grouchy right hand man who’s revealed to have sold him out, so you can easily imagine him as a one dimensional sniveling character. Instead he has some layers to him, even if he can’t be redeemed. The king has more sympathy for Ciaran’s attitude than Boudica, telling her about his war trauma. After the treachery he at least doesn’t try to make excuses, he clearly knows he’s a piece of shit, and wears it on his face. When Boudica ambushes Catus in the woods Ciaran sees her first, and he seems not only shocked that she’s alive but overcome with guilt. His next reaction is to think she can’t possibly take on Catus, and try to warn her away, trying to help her. She doesn’t show him the same mercy.
It’s obviously risky to make a movie on a VOD budget that’s in a similar genre to expensive studio fare like GLADIATOR and BRAVEHEART. The action can’t reach that sort of epic scale, and neither can the locations; there are a couple of composited establishing shots that I wish were more visually appealing. But I understand, forgive and forget. Johnson finds ways to stage large battles in close quarters (mostly the woods) with loud metal clanging sounds and distant yelling suggesting all kinds of mayhem going on around us. Blood splashes, heads are chopped, we hear copious pouring and splattering sound effects.
In a few scenes fog is skillfully deployed to provide atmosphere, also implying a larger scene outside of our view.
Occasionally these illusions didn’t quite work for me, at other times the rawness and intimacy (as opposed to epic-ness) made BOUDICA feel more authentic than the bigger movies, less glamourized. The real battles probly weren’t always glorious, they were just some people covered in mud and metal, messily hacking into each other with axes.
I should mention that Johnson’s usual cinematographer Jonathan Hall and composer Sean Murray do strong work and help make this stuff exciting.
Though I enjoyed the action, the highlight of the movie is Kurylenko’s transformation from the classy civilized lady to the proud barbarian, fighting for freedom, she says. Of course it doesn’t work out, she only succeeds at becoming an inspirational symbol, and Johnson makes no bones about war not being the greatest thing to be queen of. I like that the way he tells her story is not entirely literal – there are these fantasy elements, and things told in the perspective of our not-sane heroine. For example she’s either advised by ghosts or by hallucinations. It does not appear to be a healthy lifestyle. But sometimes fucked up people are the most interesting.
Of Johnson’s recent female-led historical action dramas I’m more of a HELL HATH NO FURY man, but this is another good one and a new achievement for him, and for Kurylenko.