Synopsis: “A mysterious outsider named Jacob King from South Africa arrives in Los Angeles to avenge his younger sister’s death.”
The synopsis of the film sounds as generic as your average Marvel film. Anyone who is a fan of the action genre knows the “revenge killing” stories are a dime a dozen, but there is something about Message From the King that makes it more watchable that others in the same category.
Part of that is Chadwick Boseman whose portrayal of Jacob King embraces the less heroic aspects of his character’s quest for vengeance. Too often in these types of films the hero claims to be killing in someone else’s name. They’re seeking vengeance for the fallen – that kind of thing. The characterization of Jacob King peels back a few layers of this archetype to hint at the idea that King isn’t killing out vengeance, but out of guilt. His relationship with his sister was strained, which was largely responsible for her moving from South Africa to Los Angeles (where she was ultimately murdered). You can see a dark cloud of remorse fall over him as he continues to seek out his sister’s killers that seems to indicate the true motives for his violence; he’s angry with himself and this is the only way he knows to exorcise that anger.
While it is refreshing to see a protagonist like this somewhat acknowledge that it’s more about their guilt than some kind of righteous vengeance, the idea of using a woman’s corpse for motivation isn’t the most original premise by far. Add into the fact that there is very little room in this movie for any female character that’s not a victim or a whore (to be fair, Theresa Palmer’s Kelly actually had an interesting enough arc on her own and didn’t end up playing the typical damsel in distress) and it definitely hampers what is otherwise a pretty interesting take on the revenge sub-genre.
Jacob King’s methods, on the other hand, were very refreshing for this genre. Normally in these kinds of films the protagonist has access to Bruce-Wayne-like resources (whether it be information, guns, gadgets, etc). In Message From The King, Jacob only has his wits to get the job done. Basically he’s a broke dude from South Africa who literally takes the bus (or borrowers a P.O.S. car) to get around. He doesn’t have some cache of guns laying around, he goes to hardware store and buys a bike chain to take on mobsters.
A fucking BIKE CHAIN.
And he knows how to use it – big time. Between that and his investigatory skills, King is basically like low-key John Wick, but with detective skills….and more readily accessible emotions.
Alfred Molina and Luke Evans (this is probably my favorite role of his to date) take up the main villain roles in this one and each play a different aspect of the shady side of Hell-A. Molina sees himself more a victim of circumstance type villain who doesn’t view himself as a “bad guy” necessarily, but more of a weak individual. But he’s definitely a bad guy.
Evans embraces the villainy a bit more as the sleazy dentist (yes, sleazy dentist). While they occupy the role of “antagonists,” there are no plots for world-domination or attempts to kill millions of people. These two guys are basically the same kind of amoral sociopaths who run wallstreet. They don’t see themselves as bad guys, they’re just better/smarter/richer than all the schlubs out there so why give a damn about them? They never anticipated someone like King would be connected to the riff-raff they usually exploit.
Big mistake. HUGE.
It definitely falls back on the repetitive crutch of exploiting female characters largely as props. In a strange irony it ends up being guilty of the same moral crime as the film’s villains, but overall Message from the King is a small, dark story operating in that moral gray area we see too little of in this cut-and-dried world of true-blue heroes and mustache-twirling villains that populate the theaters. It ends up feeling like something Tony Scott would have loved to get his hands on back in his day (and would have most definitely starred Denzel).
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