Message for the King is a straight up revenge thriller. The simple plot has Chadwick Boseman’s Jacob King – the clue’s in the title – come to LA from Cape Town to find his missing sister. Like Soderbergh’s The Limey it’s an uncomfortable journey into the underworld. It’s a tried-and-tested formula that, if deftly handled, can elevate any low budget interpretation. Although, these streamlined thrillers aren’t as popular nowadays, director Fabrice du Welz presents the first 20 minutes as something as a detective-gone-rogue tale. Albeit with a heavy hand, King listens to accounts and follows leads. Welz is wise enough not to think he’s outsmarting his audience. The slight genre-bending is a way of drawing us in, rather than hoodwinking us.
While it doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, literally focusing on the main character allow the audience to fully embroil themselves in King’s head. To his credit, Boseman is subtle enough to let the audience know what he’s thinking without being hammy and telegraphing his emotions. With Welz decision to put the camera up-close and personal, only an actor capable of deft nuance could stop Message from the King turning into a schlocky exploitation flick. This style also puts you front and centre of some of the grizzly discoveries King uncovers. His reactions are just as affecting as any bloody imagery. The first act plays out like a dream-like moving portrait that’s both hypnotic and unsettling.
The explosive moment of violence that closes the first act is a perverse catharsis for the viewer. After what you’ve seen through Jacob King’s eyes, galvanised by the anguish you quite literally share, Jacob’s retribution is permissible. Thankfully, even though he’s out numbered, the scene doesn’t play out like a choreographed set piece starring Statham. There’s most certainly a place for balletic battle in Friday night actioners, but Message from the King commits to grainy realism and the very human aspect of the journey. Even Bourne’s stylings would be too intentional for a film that’s realistically haphazard and sudden.
While the violence punctuates Message for the King it isn’t glorified. Much like the culmination of Drive, it’s a powerful shock to the system – a far cry from the celebrated cartoon violence we’re used to seeing on our screens. Welz’ intention is clearly to serve the story rather than a commentary on movie violence. However, when it does happen it’s startling in its indiscriminate approach.
Gladly, it’s not all bare knuckle brawling. The revenge-thriller template may be paint by numbers, but Message from the King is brave enough to go outside the lines. Luke Evans’ greedy dentist is powerful in his love-to-hate role, but takes enough care to not slide into panto-villain. Even Teresa Palmer’s Kelly brings something heartbreakingly tender to the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold.
Message from the King is not an easy watch. It’s incessantly provocative, often demanding, at times uncomfortable, but more rewarding than it has any right to be.
4* - Sympathy for Mr Panther