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MOVIE REVIEW

‘The Woman King’ leads with humanity, not perfection

Viola Davis stars in this action-filled epic about an all-female band of African warriors

From left, Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch (in back), and Sheila Atim in “The Woman King.”Ilze Kitshoff

A big-budget action movie like “The Woman King” can turn its heroes larger than life: forging role models, or spawning a legion of children’s toys, from its stories of world-saving.

In the past decade, a number of blockbusters have sought to reimagine what action heroes look like, but even groundbreaking movies still have a ways to go when it comes to portraying women and people of color. Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man got to doubt himself while Gal Gadot’s hyper-confident Wonder Woman seems like an overcompensation. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa in “Black Panther” was gracious and generous but felt scrubbed of anger, emotion, and the capacity to make mistakes.

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Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” embraces its characters’ vulnerability. Prince-Bythewood is known for highlighting the messy details of human nature in her movies that span genres: Her “Love & Basketball” (2000) is a romantic comedy about two basketball players who grow up next to each other that’s both barbed and tender; “The Old Guard” (2020) is an intimate action flick about superheroes who resent their immortality. Prince-Bythewood knows how to do large-scale action without sacrificing depth, and she teases out the contradictions in her characters.

“The Woman King” follows General Nanisca (Viola Davis) and her all-female group of warriors in the West African kingdom of Dahomey as they defend themselves from neighboring tribes and from European colonizers. Its focus is split between battles abroad and the warriors’ training regimen at home, much of it seen through the eyes of earnest new recruit Nawi (Thuso Mbedu).

The film was inspired by the real-life story of the Agojie, a famously brutal group of women who fought for Dahomey (now part of Benin) for much of the country’s history. Often compared by Europeans who encountered them to the mythical Amazons, the Agojie were formally assembled by King Ghezo (played here by John Boyega) in the 1800s. The film is loosely set against a backdrop of conflicts: war with the much-larger Oyo Empire nearby, internal debates about whether Dahomey should continue to participate in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the threat of European imperialism.

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Grounding the plot is the loving and turbulent relationship between Nawi and General Nanisca.

Aside from King Ghezo, the majority of the film’s characters are fictional. To tell the Agojie women’s story, screenwriter Dana Stevens has imagined a vivid group of sometimes kind, sometimes ruthless warriors.

Lashana Lynch and Thuso Mbedu in "The Woman King."Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

The heart of the film is the rich cast of women leads: not just Nanisca and Nawi, but also Izogie (a virtuoso Lashana Lynch) and Amenza (Sheila Atim). They will protect their loved ones to the death — and also, sometimes, let them down. They’re passionate, stubborn leaders (and rule-breakers), full of brilliant ideas and also prone to foolhardy displays of bravery, in Nawi’s case, or jaded refusal to listen to others.

Lynch, in particular, is a standout, weaving together a drillmaster persona, an occasional anxiousness, and a winking humor. Not a single one of these women feels one-note; each has crucial pressure points that raise the film’s stakes and deepen emotional investment in their stories.

The film’s action scenes tend to opt for intimate hand-to-hand combat between key characters over stuntman-heavy choreography. Prince-Bythewood’s penchant for close-up action shots pays off here. Rather than give the Oscar-winning Davis a series of unrealistic martial arts slam dunks, Prince-Bythewood pits her against people who have harmed her, once when she’s suffering from serious injuries, crafting a formidable but realistic action lead who’s not guaranteed a victory.

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Nawi is even more likely to have the odds stacked against her, or simply be in over her head. Through ill-advised solo missions and attempts to throw wisecracks at Nanisca, she gets to mature into a still headstrong but much smarter heroine over time.

The film’s dialogue also gets smarter over time. “You are a warrior, you must kill your tears,” Izogie says early on. Such heavy-handed proclamations about the Agojie’s strength taper off after the film’s setting is more established. A deftly-handled twist near the film’s middle also helps deepen it from an upbeat crowd-pleaser to a darker, intimate story that does far more justice to the ugliness of its time period. Like Nawi, the film matures and finds its stride over time.

“The Woman King” lets its excellent cast weave between hubris, shakiness, and strength, achieving not just richer representation but more thrilling fight scenes, too. As movies battle each other at the box office this weekend, “The Woman King” has already proven its might.

★★★

THE WOMAN KING

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Written by Dana Stevens. Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, John Boyega, and Sheila Atim. At Kendall Square, AMC Boston Common, Regal Fenway. 134 minutes. PG-13 (gore, a fair bit of decapitation, and some largely chaste romance scenes).


Joy Ashford can be reached at joy.ashford@globe.com. Follow them on Twitter @joy_ashford.