A tale of revenge and honor, Message from the King mirrors much of the presence Boseman brought to Black Panther.
Continuing to look at Chadwick Boseman’s filmography, we jump a few years forward to 2016’s Message from the King. While it plays within the confines of similar action/revenge stories, a strong lead and some tantalizing mysteries keep the film engaging.
Message from the King (2016)
Jacob King (Boseman) travels to Los Angeles from South Africa after receiving a cryptic message from his estranged sister. As he follows the clues left at her apartment, he is drawn deeper and deeper into a world of powerful politicians, crooked film producers, and an illicit drug trade that fuels them both.
You Tell Him I’m Coming!
Right off the bat, the film’s tone grabbed me. It’s very reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s excellent noir, The Limey. Like Terrance Stamp, Boseman plays an isolated, tight-lipped character who seems just an inch away from violence. Stamp drew his character’s menace from the patois of a career London gangster. Boseman’s King keeps his past tightly guarded, but details that emerge about what drove his sister to flee South Africa strongly hint that King is also tied up in organized crime. This is an assumption the movie has fun playing with.
Despite their lethal skill set, both of those men bent on revenge evoked empathy in similar manners. Both are looking for a lost loved one, a search that leads them to settle the score with the people who betrayed their family member. And strangely, despite their brutal methods, both men carry a regal air about them: they’re professionals picking off dishonorable men. They don’t relish violence. It’s just a tool in their repertoire.
One part of a good detective story that needs a deft touch is the unraveling of the mystery. Some films, like The Limey, skirt this obstacle by making the conclusion forgone: we know who did it and we’re just here watching our rolling wave of misanthropy walk the perp down. Message from the King goes for cagey detective work and happy coincidences, a la films like Blade Runner or Brick.
The detective work is solid, though it makes King’s identity reveal a bit on the nose. The happy coincidences are a bit harder to swallow, as some chance interactions feel contrived, while others feel too coy. Several times King has his targets in striking distance, but instead of go right to working them over like we’ve seen him do before, he hangs back and gets himself in trouble. Ostensibly so the movie has more drama, but it feels forced.
Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown.
Message from the King is a solid entry into the genre, though not a milestone by any means. The cast is solid, with big hitters like Alfred Molina and Luke Evans doing their best with heavy-handed roles, and the often under-appreciated Teresa Palmer (Hacksaw Ridge, Berlin Syndrome) having to make the best of a thankless “hooker with a heart of gold” bit. The cinematography is sun-bleached and rain-soaked by turn, and sets a nice scene for a tragedy that could happen anywhere but feels uniquely LA in character.
The real stand out is Chadwick Boseman’s starring performance. His take on the character really sells the action and revenge elements. It’s hard to quantify what about a scene where a man with a bike chain beats four gangsters into bloody pulps could be considered “restrained” but his character work pulls it off. You can definitely see how the noble and aggrieved persona he portrays made him such a perfect fit as T’Challa in Black Panther.