Often melodramatic and unapologetically goofy, Kingdom combines manga tropes with stylized fight scenes to make its subject matter entertaining.
Director Shinsuke Sato's Kingdom - a live-action film adaptation of Yasuhisa Hara's manga series that's not to be confused with Netflix's medieval Korean zombie horror show (which also debuted in 2019) of the same name - is part history lesson, but mostly a pulpy historical action-adventure more concerned with bloody, yet elegant swordplay than cold hard facts. That's not a bad thing, either. With its comic book-y tone and easy-to-access hero's journey narrative, Kingdom could serve as a gateway drug for viewers who've yet to experience a more highbrow artistic take on the same period in China's past (for example, Zhang Yimou's Wuxia feature Hero). Often melodramatic and unapologetically goofy, Kingdom combines manga tropes with stylized combat scenes to make its subject matter entertaining.
Kingdom starts off in 255 BC (relatively close to the end of the Warring States Period) in the Qin state of China, as a young orphan named Xin befriends a fellow servantboy named Piao and the pair agree to spar one another 10,000 times, in the hopes of becoming generals one day and escaping their lives of servitude. Years later, Xin (Kento Yamazaki) and Piao (Ryô Yoshizawa) have both grown up to become master swordsmen, but only Piao is recruited by a warrior named Chang Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima) to serve the king. When the king's treacherous half-brother, Cheng Jiao (Kanata Hongô), leads a revolt, Xin learns Piao was a body double for the newly-exiled ruler, Ying Zheng (also Yoshizawa), and - upon realizing he can use this to his advantage - agrees to help Ying Zheng reclaim his throne and, ultimately, unite the Warring States as one empire.
As written by Sato (2018's Bleach movie), Hara, and Tsutomu Kuroiwa (Evil and the Mask), the Japanese-language Kingdom draws from most of the same mythical storytelling traditions as other modern American and Japanese comic books and/or their adaptations. Whether it's a Shakespearean rivalry between royal half-siblings Cheng Jiao and Ying Zheng - the latter of whom was co-parented by a commoner - in the vein of last year's Aquaman film, or Xin and Piao's touching bromance as they evolve from orphaned kids with big dreams to seasoned fighters who come to embrace a purpose larger than themselves (think of Naruto, to name but one recent manga that comes to mind), Kingdom is full of elements that should be all too familiar to the superhero and graphic novel crowd. It struggles to bring a whole lot of depth to these plot conventions and character arcs, admittedly, but what it lacks for greater insight, it generally makes up for with dramatic flair and vigor.
That extends to the cast's performances, which range from Hongô's scenery-chewing as the dastardly Cheng Jiao (who, honestly, could've used a mustache to twirl) to Yamazaki's charmingly brash manner as the determined Xin, and Yoshizawa's coiled, collected temper as Ying Zheng (whose chess-master strategizing foreshadows the Emperor he will go on to become). Like any decent myth, Kingdom runs the gamut when it comes to archetypical supporting players, with the standouts including Masami Nagasawa as "warrior princess" Yang Duan He (chieftain of the mountain tribe), Kanna Hashimoto as He Liao Diao (a plucky young bandit who aids Xin and Ying Zheng), and Takao Ohsawa as Wang Qi, the legendary general who abides by the "Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick" philosophy. The film's sympathies ultimately lie with its under-privileged heroes, and its championing of their quality of character over their class and power-obsessed oppressors makes it easier to accept just how broadly sketched everyone is.
But of course, it's the martial arts action and spectacle where Kingdom really delivers the goods. Taro Kawazu's cinematography sets the stage for the movie's battle sequences with its majestical establishing shots, but also takes the time to capture the more intricate details of Iwao Saitô's production design and Masae Miyamoto's costumes (which bring the original manga's settings and characters to stylishly exciting life). Kingdom's production values and fight choreography aren't on the same level as other visually-poetic historical epics (see again, Yimou's collective filmography), but are striking all the same. The film's schlockier tendencies also serve it well in the scenes that carry-over the more outlandish bad guys from it source material (inhuman killers, monstrous executioners, and so on).
Altogether, Kingdom makes for a dramatically souped-up and occasionally silly, but overall enjoyable exploration of ancient Chinese history through the lens of a live-action Japanese manga adaptation. It's already a monster hit in its home country (where it grossed nearly as much as Avengers: Endgame at this year's box office), so there's really no pressure on the movie to appeal to anyone beyond the expected niche audience here in the States. Still, for those who live near a theater where the film is screening, this journey to the past is worth experiencing on the big screen.
Kingdom is now playing in select U.S. theaters. It is 134 minutes long and is rated R for violence.