Director: Jesse V. Johnson
Cast: Olga Kurylenko, Clive Standen, Peter Franzén, Lucy Martin, Nick Moran, James Faulkner
Running Time: 101 min.
By Henry McKeand
One thing you could never call Jesse Johnson is complacent. Just a few months ago, his 21st-century western, One Ranger, was released. Now, he’s delivering Boudica: Queen of War, a film that swaps out Johnson’s typical pulpy crime narratives for a blood-soaked take on the story of Boudica, a legendary British queen who waged war on her Roman oppressors in AD 60.
It’s a far cry from the modern prisons and back alleyways that DTV action fans are most used to seeing, but the transition makes sense if you’ve been following Johnson’s recent filmography. After all, 2021’s Hell Hath No Fury transposed his brand of DTV action to a WWII potboiler about a woman fighting against the Nazis. Johnson seems committed to trying out as many sub-genres as possible, and it’s hard to deny that he’s evolving as an artist.
Normally, I wouldn’t be too excited about a DTV sword-and-sandal flick (very few performers look “convincing” in Roman armor, and ex-UFC fighters are no different). It’s a testament to Johnson’s ability, then, that Boudica is not merely watchable—it’s a legitimately satisfying revenge movie that makes good use of its period piece elements.
This is due in large part to the lead performance by Olga Kurylenko, the Ukrainian actress who in recent years has made a seamless transition into DTV stardom without sacrificing any of her A-list appeal (she previously worked with Johnson on White Elephant). Of all the women who rose to fame as “Bond Girls,” very few have made the smart career choices that Kurylenko has. In addition to her mid-budget action roles, she’s worked with Terence Malick and played the baddie in a Marvel film. As the titular Boudica, she’s found one of her juiciest roles in recent memory.
Her story, at least according to Johnson’s screenplay, is a harrowing one. As a Celtic queen who descends from a proud line of Barbarians, she lives an idyllic life with her husband, Prasutagus (Clive Standen), and her two daughters. When their status threatens the ruling Romans, her world is shattered by a series of brutalities that lead her to fulfill her destiny as a vengeful warrior queen.
While based on real events (the opening text scrawl cites Tacitus as the main source), the script leans fully into the mythic quality of the legend, complete with an enchanted sword and ghostly visions. A lot of the fun is watching the once “civilized” and beautiful Boudica turned into a brutal, war-painted general. Johnson previously explored this kind of pain-fueled metamorphosis by putting his muse Scott Adkins through the ringer in their magnum opus Avengement, and there are some interesting parallels between the films (Johnson apparently loves knocking the teeth out of his heroes).
Kurylenko has experience with this milieu, having played a Barbarian warrior in Centurion. She throws herself into the role, flailing between catatonic grief and wild-eyed rage, often within the same scene. Standen is good as her husband, too, even if his only real character traits are “love my wife” and “be a strong dad.” Padding out the cast are Peter Franzén, Lucy Martin, Nick Moran, and James Faulkner—all strong.
Thankfully, the shift to an “important” tale of classical antiquity hasn’t distracted Johnson from his action duties, and the battle scenes are frequent and bloody in the back half. These are some of the best set pieces of his career, made especially impressive by his ability to create a sense of grand scale. Sure, the guerilla warfare strategies used by Boudica and her followers mean that there are no pitched battles with hundreds of extras, and there’s some falling back on the classic trick of cutting to a series of one-on-one fights in order to narrow the focus. That doesn’t change that these sequences are more immersive than anything this side of Ridley Scott, with merciless choreography and bombastic sound design (assisted by Sean Murray’s killer score). You’ll even see some honest-to-God horse stunt work.
The real complaint here, surprisingly, is the length. You won’t see me write this often, but this could have been half an hour longer. This is an epic tale, but the 100-minute runtime makes important dramatic moments feel perfunctory. Avengement managed to sell the transformation of its protagonist through a single montage, but Boudica’s vengeful arc comes off as rushed and convenient. A new script with more room to breathe would have better served the material.
In truth, it’s hard not to imagine what it would look like if the film were “bigger” in every way. What if the budget were doubled and the shooting schedule lengthened? What if Johnson had access to major Hollywood players and buzzy screenplays? Could Boudica have been the next Braveheart or Gladiator?
There’s a tendency to fear that our favorite mid-budget directors will be snatched up by big studios making lifeless CGI dreck. Would Universal or Warner Brothers know what to do with an Isaac Florentine or Timo Tjahjanto or Jesse Johnson? Probably not, but there are very few people with a knack for action like them, and it’s almost disheartening to go on iMDB and see that Johnson has five (!) other movies in production right now. He deserves to be given the resources to focus on a major, theatrical project.
Perhaps his diversifying filmography is a sign that he has Hollywood in his sights. That would either be a blessing or spell disaster. Regardless, Boudica is proof that there are still filmmakers willing to take big swings and deliver old-fashioned thrills even when the industry isn’t paying attention.
Henry McKeand’s Rating: 7/10