Netflix has a funny way of just showing up on your front door with content that you are supremely interested in that you didn’t know existed a few days ago. Some of their big hitters have months of promotion, especially their annual original TV shows, but even some movies get in on the hype train before dropping into a glorious accessible streaming. But there are plenty of shows that show up for dinner and even brought some wine with them, but still didn’t tell you they were coming beforehand. Message from the King was like that for me.
Now, let’s be fair. The line between genre and cliché is getting pretty cloudy for this type of movie. The man, with a code, built on nothing but discipline and sheer will, goes up against seemingly insurmountable odds to avenge someone or something. If you’ve seen Taken or Man on Fire or even John Wick, you’ve seen this movie before. That doesn’t make it an outright bad film by any stretch. You’re just not going to see anything wholly original or even doing something better than those previous films either. One thing that carries some uniqueness (at least in comparison to the aforementioned films) is that there isn’t some absurd body count. The action is focused and impactful without the need for the video game enemy spawn type populace. The movie is, pseudo-mystery, essentially, with the protagonist peeling each layer of the onion back until it reaches a climax. The layers peeled, often, in brutal fashion.
So if this not all that unique of a film (and certainly doesn’t have the budget of those aforementioned flicks), then why bother? Because Chadwick Boseman might still be one of the best actors working today. Period. He has a gravity about him that owns every scene, even when much of his time is spent quietly bubbling with rage. Boseman plays Jacob King, a mysterious man traveling to the States from South Africa with no credit cards and only $600 to his name. He is looking for his sister, after receiving some distress call from her not too long before. What follows is Jacob going down the rabbit hole of learning about his sister, who he hasn’t truly known for many years, the life she led and why she was so desperate to reach out to him.
Jacob is…an angry young man. He gradually elevates from inquisitive, to persistent, to aggressively persuasive. And really, the adjectives just increase from there. We are given hints as to why Jacob is not only filled with rage but why he’s capable of doing the acts we witness, though the biggest reveal happens in the last five minutes of the film. It would have had more gravity (learning what Jacob truly is) if we had other means of seeing his capabilities. The ending is asked to do too much heavy lifting, where the load could have been distributed more evenly.
Boseman, is fantastic. No doubt. As if Black Panther wasn’t evidence enough, when he wants to go there, Boseman will absolutely be a believable action star. The script, however, fails him time and again. Sometimes with plot choices, sometimes with flat out clichés. If you’ve already stayed around despite the angry man burns everything down trope this movie is couched in, then you won’t be surprised to see the downtrodden woman companion, doing morally whatever it takes to make ends meet for her and her daughter. When Jacob gets roughed up, it’s her home that he crash lands in and seeks care. It’s her that ultimately gets a better life out of her interaction with Jacob.
You’ve seen all this before. It’s even more disturbing to feel the juxtaposition of the white savior for the black sinner play out so predictably, but alas, here we are. There are plenty of POC in the film that flank Jacob, but none were tabbed to play the non-compromised one, which is discouraging. There are also some narrative jumps that turn out flat in investigating the trouble the sister got into, her motivations and her abilities. There are plenty of allusions that say “we have to be careful of him, he’s like his sister” but we aren’t really sure why anyone should’ve been wary of the sister. She doesn’t feel like a full character, even though the narrative is so dependent upon her.
Ultimately, was this a terrible movie? No, not by any means. It just wasn’t that great, even if the vehicle felt very ripe for Boseman. With Black Panther coming out and the quick turnaround of this movie dropping, it feels like this is a sidequest for the actor before he gets back to his main quest with Panther in February. Come to see Boseman wreck shop and show some range. Stay for…well, not much else.