Surprise surprise, Jesse V. Johnson has knocked it out the park again. Returning to screens with historical actioner Boudica: Queen of War, Johnson’s latest has everything we have come to love about his films and a little bit more. Writing and directing, it would appear Boudica is something of a labor of love for Johnson.
King Prasutagus (Clive Standen) is ruler to the Iceni people, with his wife Boudica (Olga Kurylenko) by his side. Forced to contend with the Romans who currently rule their land, Prasutagus finds himself betrayed by one of his own, with his former ally being paid in gold to lure Prasutagus into the open where he is swiftly murdered.
After his death, his wife Boudica decides to take up the mantle of Queen, but this is quickly taken from her when the Romans take all her land and property, not before almost flogging her and her children to death. With her almost on the cusp of death, she is saved by those still loyal to her who help train her in order to get revenge against Rome. Seizing control of the several armies that make up her lands, Boudica wages violent war against the Roman Empire.
Johnson has clearly done his research. Now I am no historian so I can’t honestly say how close the film adheres to historical fact, but the settings, costumes and weapons all seem authentic. In fact, the most I knew of the historical figure came from earlier production Warrior Queen a.k.a. Boudica (2003) which starred Alex Kingston in the lead role. Whilst that was a decent attempt, Johnson’s film has it beat hands down.
Johnson’s take on the tale may be low on budget, but it is large in scope. With it’s beautiful cinematography courtesy of Jonathan Hall, awesome action scenes and winning performances, this is very much an A picture but made with B movie resources.
It would appear that Johnson was aiming for Boudica to be similar in tone to the likes of Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000), and while he can’t reach those films’ grand scales, he does a damn good job at trying. The battle scenes may be smaller scale than those classics, but Johnson still manages to make them gripping, with the violent carnage on display being as effective and shocking as anything Mel Gibson or Ridley Scott managed.
Whilst watching Boudica I wondered how different the film may be if Johnson had the resources that someone like Ridley Scott has at his disposal. What would change in the finished film? Sure the battle scenes may be larger in scale but would a Hollywood studio allow him the freedom to create the film how he envisaged? Sadly I think the answer to that would be no. Whilst he would probably still be able to work his magic, I couldn’t see big name producers not interfering on the finished product, no doubt forcing him to create a PG-13 version of his tale, more in line with the sanitized fodder that plays in multiplexes these days.
Johnson is very much an old school writer/director, with his work being more in line with the directors and films coming out of Hollywood in the 70’s than anything currently released. With a penchant for flawed, morally complex characters, Boudica perfectly fits under this banner. While heroic, she isn’t shown to be without ego, with that ego possibly leading to her own downfall.
Johnson’s more traditional style doesn’t just play into the characters and tone but plays an important part in the action. Now anyone who has come to know the works of Johnson will recognize he is no slouch when it comes to helming action scenes. His action has a tendency to be hard hitting and brutally violent. No matter if it’s martial arts fights or gunplay, there is a sense of hyper realism to his action. For me personally, the best examples of this can be found in his films Savage Dog (2017) and Avengement (2019), both of which feature awesomely violent action scenes with a morally murky anti-hero at their core.
Johnson has brought on regular collaborator Luke LaFontaine as action director. He has worked on the likes of The Debt Collector (2018), Avengement and The Mercenary (2019), so his action credentials aren’t in doubt. With Boudica, it is mostly swordplay that features. Bloody, visceral swordplay that doesn’t let up. Honestly, in my mind Boudica is the most violent film Johnson has ever directed and all the more memorable for it. His battle scenes are perfectly brutal with Johnson once again utilizing practical effects over CGI. There is the odd usage of digital effects throughout but they are few and far between.
The standout for me was a forest set battle about midway in the film where Kurylenko’s Boudica confronts Nick Moran’s Catus Decianus. This lengthy confrontation is perfectly choreographed, showing the brutality and disorientation of war. A lot of the fight is done in long takes, where the camera follows Boudica taking down multiple opponents. There is the odd bit of stunt doubling used on Kurylenko’s part, but it is well covered and doesn’t impinge on the quality of the action.
Speaking of Kurylenko, this is one of her better roles of late. This marks her second feature with Johnson after White Elephant (2022). I wasn’t sure how she would initially play the part but she makes for a commanding Warrior Queen, with the role allowing for her to go through a gamut of emotions.
Like he did with Scott Adkins in Avengement, Johnson seems to revel in messing attractive people up. Kurylenko is brutalized almost as Adkins was in that film, with her body broken, face scarred, and especially like Adkins, missing a good amount of teeth. Kurylenko’s performance is clear of any vanity. She is definitely beautiful as the film opens, but this slowly fades as the film progresses and Boudica becomes more of a warrior. Still, even under all that mud and blood, her beauty still manages to shine through.
A good deal of the supporting cast are made up of actors from the television show Vikings (2013). Clive Standen, Peter Franzen and Lucy Martin all played fan favorites on that show and bring the same level of quality to their roles here. Of the three, Franzen gets the meatiest role, with his warrior Wolfgar at first being dismissive of Boudica only to become one of her firmest allies. Like Kurylenko he gets involved in several quality action scenes that not only show off his skills as a warrior but his loyalty to his queen.
Martin’s Cartimanda is very important to the development of Boudica, with her being the first person to recognize this future Queen’s importance as well as showing Boudica that women can be warriors too. Her character is a woman of few words, but she certainly impresses during the action, with her getting some memorable action beats.
Then there’s Clive Standen’s Prasutagus, the noble King. His screen time is limited, and fans of his Vikings character Rollo may be disappointed to see him play a kinder, more loyal role. By this point in his career I honestly thought Standen would be more famous, with him being a real scene stealer in Vikings. Since Vikings, films like Vendetta (2022) haven’t exactly used him to the best of his abilities. Thankfully, while he only appears in the first third of the film, Boudica is a film he can be proud of.
On the villainous side there is Nick Moran’s evil Catus Decianus. It’s quite a substantial role for Moran and like his part in Avengement, Moran seemingly relishes the chance to play complete arseholes. Decianus’ is the closest the film has to a main villain, and although he is merely under orders, he appears to enjoy his work just a bit too much. Of the films he has done with Johnson, I would say this is his most memorable performance to date.
Like the best Johnson films, Boudica is accompanied by a Sean Murray Score. This may not be the best score he has composed for Johnson (for me that award goes to Avengement), but it suitably gets the pulses racing when required and is another fine addition to the film that raises Boudica way above most other low budget actioners of 2023.
My only gripes with the film are minor. The more fantastical elements that are included seemed out of place, but luckily these for the most part are downplayed and aren’t as intrusive as I initially thought they would be.
I have noted a few unfavorable reviews online, mostly from the likes of the Guardian. Honestly, I don’t think Guardian readers are really the target audience for a film of this ilk, but even if this is wrong, sometimes I truly wonder what someone looks for in a film. For me Boudica is a well directed tale of bravery that continues Johnson’s quality streak. Long may it continue.
Boudica: Queen of War is due for release digitally in the U.S. on October 27th and in the UK October 30th. It’s not to be missed.
Plot: 3.5/5 Acting: 4/5 Action: 4.5/5 Overall: 4/5