For the most part, Message from the King doesn’t mess around. Directed by Fabrice Du Welz (Vinyan, Alleluia), the Netflix Original lacks the narrative focus of Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noirs (Drive, Only God Forgives) but gets the job done with polished directing and Chadwick Boseman’s outstanding lead performance.
Jacob King (Boseman) travels from South Africa to Los Angeles, looking for his estranged sister Bianca (Sibongile Mlambo). Right from the start, Boseman’s charisma and composure stands out, with the conflict immediately established: King has $600 and only five days to accomplish his mission. There’s a small touch of Scarface in the opening moments, foreshadowing the inevitable confrontation with the local underworld. King doesn’t mouth off or feel threatening like Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, though. He’s silent and calculating while connecting the dots. But when King discovers his sister’s fate and makes an educated guess about her associates, he unloads with absolute violence. And that’s when Message from the King reveals its narrative flaws.
Message from the King suffers from inconsistent character dialogue. Du Welz, along with screenwriters Stephen Cornwell and Oliver Butcher, don’t fully committ to the badassery. After delivering a beat down, King actually says “Whomever you work for, tell them this was a message from the King.” On the page, that’s a sweet line. But it doesn’t fall in line with Boseman’s collective discourse. Imagine Ryan Gosling’s Drive character spouting off something like “and that’s why they call me Driver.” That wouldn’t be consistent with his behavior and dialogue.
In the second half, Message from the King maintains its rhythm, but several of the characters feel unnecessary — too many baddies enter the picture. They emerge to link the L.A. underworld with high society, but whereas Boseman consistently strengthens the film (along with co-star Teresa Palmer), the supporting characters bring it down to 90s-era Cinemax territory. Du Welz offers impressive fight sequences throughout, yet cringe-worthy, wink-of-the-eye lines such as “he’s worse than a fucking director” should have been cut entirely. Also, Jake Weary, star of It Follows and Animal Kingdom, barely receives any screen time. Early on, he interrupts an intimate moment between his girlfriend and King — then he cries and never appears again. Perhaps Weary hadn’t yet become a “name” during production, but his disappearance — along with other head-scratching story beats — suggests editorial issues during post-production. Why not give more quotable lines to Boseman? Go all in with the character; make King a legit B-movie franchise figure. Or give the clever lines to King’s love interest, Kelly (Palmer).
A star in her own right, Palmer gives an affecting, subdued performance as Kelly, a single mother trying to get by. Yet, Message from the King could have benefitted with more scenes featuring her and Boseman. The supporting characters distract from the noirish vibe, especially Alfred Molina, who receives way too much screentime as some hotshot movie producer living in Beverly Hills. Such characters exist for expositional purposes, but they’re typical Hollywood cliches. Luke Evans’ villainous dentist could have easily established narrative context with a few extra lines during his initial conversation with King (a captivating scene). Instead, Molina huffs and puffs while an inconsequential character sings in Spanish during a bizarre montage sequence.
Rather than establishing his own distinct style, Du Welz makes consistent references, perhaps inadvertently, to actions films of the past 25 years. It makes for a fun watch but minimizes the film’s potential. Still, Message from the King is one helluva ride. If there’s a sequel, and hopefully there will be, a little more suggestion and less exposition would be recommended.
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and the Founding Editor of Vague Visages. In 2004, he graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. From 2006 to 2012, Quinn lived in Hollywood, California and now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.