Here at InRO, we’ve been banging the drum for low-budget action auteur Jesse V. Johnson for years. Best known for his numerous collaborations with former stuntman and martial arts expert Scott Adkins, Johnson has been churning out rock-solid genre flicks for two decades, often at a ludicrous pace — 12 films since 2017 alone. His new feature, Boudica: Queen of War, is something of a departure; the director has focused on a female protagonist before, most notably with 2021’s Hell Hath No Fury, but this sort of swords-and-sandals historical epic represents a bold leap forward in ambition. It’s not perfect — Boudica strains against its budgetary limitations, and some of the early goings are very familiar from larger, more mainstream pictures (namely the oeuvre of Ridley Scott). But it’s a winning showcase for star Olga Kurylenko, who’s gradually been making her own strides into the DTV genre after years of generic arm-candy roles. She’s fantastic here, fully engaged in a demanding role that charts her progress from privileged royalty to warrior goddess.
Johnson begins the film with a brief but startling bit of carnage; it’s 60 AD, and Roman soldiers under the rule of Nero (Harry Kirton) are mercilessly slaughtering the remaining Celtic tribes that dare to defy their rule. After a brief skirmish, in which armored soldiers slice and dice fur-clad freedom fighters, the film slows down to introduce Prasutagus, King of the Iceni (Clive Standen) and his Queen, played by Kurylenko. Theirs is a bucolic life, and while Prasutagus chafes under Roman rule, he is nonetheless a willing collaborator. For her part, Kurylenko seems content to let her husband handle the kingdom while she dotes on her two adorable daughters. But danger exists right at the margins of their privileged existence, illustrated here by a visit to an outdoor marketplace where the corpses of those who defy the Empire are proudly displayed. There’s also some concern about a new Procurator appointed to the area, a cruel, pompous man named Catus Decianus (Nick Moran). He hates the people under his charge, assuming they are nothing more than barbarians and simpletons. When Prasutagus is killed under peculiar circumstances, Decianus takes the opportunity to wrench the kingdom away from Kurylenko’s rightful queen. It seems Nero has declared that no woman anywhere in the empire can hold a position of power nor own land, and so Kurylenko and her daughters are whipped and branded for their “offense” and as a warning to others. Left for dead, roaming Druid warriors find Kurylenko and nurse her back to health, convinced that she is the prophesied Boudica who will lead them in glorious uprising against their oppressors. Boudica wants nothing to do with this prophecy, but a chance encounter with a mystical sword — Johnson eschews history here for a nod at the Excalibur legend, instead — convinces her that revenge against the Romans is in fact her destiny.
All of this setup, up to and including Kurylenko’s ultimate transformation into full-fledged warrior queen, takes up roughly the first half of the film. It’s in the film’s second half that things really come to life, as Johnson gets to show off his action chops. Boudica and her motley crew of druids and mercenaries cut a bloody swath across Europe, obliterating legions of Romans in the process. There’s nothing elegant here, just blunt, brutal hacking and slashing. Throats are cut with gleeful abandon, and extremely vivid vivisections abound. Johnson doesn’t indulge in flashy editing or other stylistic flourishes, instead favoring a close framing that keeps actors and action in fairly tight medium close-ups. Surely part of this is budgetary — sets are barebone, with just enough detail to suggest the illusion of whatever it is we are supposed to be seeing. It’s simple but effective, perhaps even preferable to the typical spectacle this genre usually facilitates. Boudica isn’t going to win any awards for production design or cinematography, but there’s a purity to the proceedings. At the risk of sounding hopelessly pretentious, there are times that the film approaches the austerity of Rivette’s Joan the Maid duology, or even Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. Everything Johnson chooses to put on screen is essential, even if because of practical necessity rather than “artistry.” But the end result is the same — everything superfluous is simply cast aside. There’s a kind of beauty to the formal and moral simplicity on display, as Kurylenko splits the difference between Renee Falconetti and Milla Jovovich-type action hero. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary, but for those inclined to embrace the bootstrap ethos of DTV, Boudica is a fist-pumping delight.
DIRECTOR: Jesse V. Johnson; CAST: Olga Kurylenko, Clive Standen, Peter Franzén; DISTRIBUTOR: Saban Films; IN THEATERS & STREAMING: October 27; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 40 min.