Epic scope and scale on a bargain-basement budget. That might be the best way to describe DTV action auteur Jesse V. Johnson’s newest film, Boudica: Queen of War, starring Olga Kurylenko, who has carved quite a niche for herself in this realm.
Boudica tells a version of the real-life story of a Celtic warrior who leads an uprising against the Roman occupation of Britannia. The story is standard stuff for this type of film. Kurylenko has an idyllic life, with a hunky king who worships her for a husband and two perfect kids. Things, of course, go to shit. The Romans kill her family, seize control of her kingdom thanks to a decree where women can hold no position of influence, and generally abuse her before she takes the fight to them. We get flourishes of magic and prophecy here and there—certain factions of the barbarian/druid community believe she is the warrior goddess savior foretold to lead them to freedom—but mostly brutal violence in the hands of a director who knows what to do with such things.
With all the betrayal, history, political machinations, and the rest, the pace takes a while to get going. And to be honest, that’s not the film’s biggest strength. Though the script, which Johnson also wrote, does a few interesting things with Boudica’s grief, the family thread plays rote, and the politics are standard stuff for a swords-and-sandals movie. It’s a compelling historical tale, but on screen, the momentum plods along, the intrigue is too familiar to be intriguing, and the drama is far too thin.
But thankfully Kurylenko and company eventually start bushwhacking Roman legions and hacking off limbs, which is Johnson’s sweet spot. At times, when Boudica tries to go big and grandiose, like with sweeping CGI shots of Rome, the constraints become apparent, but those moments don’t happen often, and when it comes to the ancient throwdowns, that’s where the film shines. A former stunt performer, Johnson knows a thing or two about executing and shooting fight scenes. They’re down and dirty, all clashing swords and spurting blood, and staged in a way that, while maybe we don’t see massive legions clashing in open fields, still have plenty of grandeur and heft. It doesn’t hurt to have someone like Kurylenko, who has more than proven herself as a capable action star, fronting the whole thing.
Helping to sell it all are fantastic costume and character designs. While I can’t speak to the historical accuracy, from a filmic perspective, the settings and outfits look authentic. Too often in smaller movies tackling historical eras, things like armor, weapons, and settings come across as too new, too modern, too fake, but here everything feels lived in and period appropriate. If this were a Hollywood movie, the hero would somehow still be glamorous amid all this mud and battle, but Kurylenko legitimately looks like someone who has been through hell. With ratty hair, a gnarly facial scar, and half a grill pilfered from the mouth of a dead centurion, she appears every bit the fearsome warrior.
Most known for gritty, no-frills direct-to-video action movies, Boudica represents another step in a continuing evolution for Johnson. Sure, we’re still going to get the more straightforward badass fare fans expect, like White Elephant and One Ranger (not a knock, I love that shit), but more and more, he’s also sprinkling in projects that push into new territory in one way or another. The Debt Collector movies allow him to flex his comedic muscles; Avengement may be a gritty revenge thriller, but it also does interesting things narratively and emotionally, and he gets, I believe, a career-best performance out of Scott Adkins; and in Hell Hath No Fury, he turns in a World War II heist thriller fronted by a stellar Nina Bergman performance. He always has the action to hang his hat on, but it’s cool to watch an artist grow and try new things.
Boudica takes a while to find its groove, but when it does, it’s mostly Olga Kurylenko and a cadre of barbarians housing Roman soldiers in brutal, violent fashion. And there are much, much worse reasons to watch a movie. This feels like something near and dear to Jesse V. Johnson’s heart—I believe he has a daughter whose middle name is Boudicca—and what it lacks in depth or budget, it more than makes up for with enthusiasm and bloodshed. And you know what, you just need a few stalwart ride-or-dies and you can take on an empire. [Grade: B]