Viola Davis would have made an incredible silent movie star. When she fixes her eyes on someone in close-up, dialogue becomes completely superfluous. She can stare with furious anger or inspect with barely controlled emotion. In The Woman King, she gets to show off a whole arsenal of impressive fighting moves, lashing out at her enemies with swords and knives and a variety of mixed martial arts. But I found myself marveling most at the incredible things she can do with her eyes. They’re her greatest weapons.

In The Woman King, she plays Nanisca, a general who commands an all-female platoon of warriors that defends the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1820s. Dahomey really existed and so did Nanisca’s army, known as the Agojie, who live a monk-like existence behind the walls of the king’s palace. They refrain from marriage, sex, and motherhood, pledging their loyalty instead to their king, and to their sisters in arms.

There are some historical figures in the film, including the Dahomey king Nanisca serves, Ghezo (John Boyega). But the movie makes no onscreen claims to truth — there’s no title card that announces it’s “Based on a True Story” or anything like that — and elements are pretty obviously fictional even to a layman (i.e. me) as the film is unfolding. Like another of the year’s very entertaining action movies, RRR, it uses real events as a jumping-off point to tell an invented tale flecked with real history supported by fanciful storytelling. In other words, it’s a movie, not a documentary. And a fairly exciting one at that.

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Davis’ Nanisca does most of her glaring at members of the Oyo Empire, the Dahomey’s chief rivals for control of the region. Enemies captured by either side in their ongoing conflict are then sold to Europeans in the slave trade — a practice Nanisca detests and tries to convince King Ghezo to end. With the Oyo massing their forces near the Dahomey border, Nanisca begins to train a new group of potential Agojie warriors, including the headstrong Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), who is given to the King by her father after she refuses a marriage proposal.

Nawi is brave and wants to fight for her king — but she also struggles to follow orders, which Nanisca insists is one of the keys to the Agojie’s success in battle. (“Alone, you are weak! Alone, you are killed — or worse!” she warns her pupils.) As Nawi grows as a soldier, Nanisca contends with palace intrigue, as Ghezo’s many wives jockey for control of their husband, who holds the power to appoint one of them “Woman King,” supposedly a complementary monarch with power equal to his own. Nanisca’s persistent lobbying to end the sale of prisoners of war as slaves becomes even more pressing when traders arrive from Brazil — including a ruggedly handsome man named Malik (Jordan Bolger) who is half Brazilian and half African. Malik’s unenlightened colleagues threaten to align with the Oyo if King Ghezo makes good on Nanisca’s dream of freeing Dahomey’s captives.

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If The Woman King becomes a big box-office hit, it may be worth noting how many similarities this storyline shares with the plot of 2022’s biggest blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverick, another movie about an seasoned warrior who becomes the teacher to a younger generation of soldiers, including an arrogant but brave fighter who the protagonist adopts as a kind of surrogate child. The Woman King also draws comparisons to Braveheart and Gladiator, movies that combine epic battle sequences with philosophical discussions about slavery and the nature of freedom.

In the case of this new movie, it seems far more comfortable when Nanisca and the Agojie are kicking ass — in battle scenes directed with outstanding energy by Gina Prince-Bythewood — than when it must reckon seriously with the barbaric practice of slave trading, and the Dahomey’s role in perpetuating it. The Woman King also gets badly sidetracked by a ludicrous romance subplot between Nawi and Malik that seems highly implausible and very convenient, before it ultimately concludes in totally unsatisfying fashion.

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Still, the battle sequences are tremendous, and Davis’ intensity throughout is remarkable. As the Agojie’s general, she is the one who demands Nawi and the rest of the platoon observe the group’s rules around marriage and babies, and she presents herself as a stone-faced combatant who has purged herself of every emotion. When surprise plot developments endanger that facade, Davis gets to add even more nuances to her performance. Her characters in action movies and thrillers tend to be coiled springs; bottled up figures of fury and power restrained by placid exteriors. In The Woman King, the spring gets uncoiled — both physically and emotionally. It’s a thrill to watch. (So is the rest of the supporting cast, including a scene-stealing Lashana Lynch as one of Nanisca’s lieutenants.)

Like all good war movies, The Woman King contains its fair share of inspirational speeches and pithy aphorisms. One such phrase becomes greatly important through sheer repetition: “Sometimes, a termite can take down an elephant.” This may be a famous African expression; I honestly don’t know. (A quick Google search didn’t turn anything up.) But to a film nerd, those words evoke the work of critic Manny Farber, whose most famous essay is called “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art.” In it, Farber argues in favor of disreputable genre fiction (termite art) over more highbrow (and heavy-handed) big-budget works of “white elephant” art.

The Woman King occasionally plays like a battle between its own elephant and termite art tendencies, and its final act seems unsure whether to embrace its impulses towards gritty, B-movie action or venture into a more solemn consideration of its weightier issues. Within the story, the termite may take down the elephant. Behind-the-scenes, the final result is not so cut and dry. But Davis’ performance — and the ferocious fighting of her Agojie comrades — make The Woman King worth watching anyway.

RATING: 7/10

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