Jacob King (Chadwick Boseman) has travelled from Cape Town in South Africa to Los Angeles in the United States, and on arrival at customs the authorities are sceptical about his motives for being there, accusing him of trying to be an illegal immigrant who could, for example, take a taxi driving job in New York without bothering with the proper channels. However, Jacob is insistent that he is purely there for a holiday, and with nothing to hold him on he is allowed to go on his way, promising them he will only be in the country for one week. He will stay true to his word, for he really is not there for work - he is there to find out what happened to his sister, who has disappeared in the city.
Message to the King was essentially a detective yarn only the man seeking to get to the heart of the mystery did not bother with any middle men like a private eye, he took matters into his own hands and tracked down his sister himself. In that way this was less Philip Marlowe, or Shaft either, and more akin to something like George C. Scott in Hardcore back in the nineteen-seventies where the hero must pick his way through an underworld of lowlifes to reach the truth, that the object of his search was corrupted by those self-same lowlifes, though in this case it is recommended early on to Jacob that he try the morgue before he goes around asking more questions, which he does.
What he finds shocks him, as his sister is indeed there in a body bag, her head caved in - he recognises her from her tattoo, but he does not identify her corpse so he can continue his investigation, which has now become a drive for vengeance. This sounds like a setup for a tense thriller, maybe with a smattering of action included, and you had the impression this was what director Fabrice du Welz had in mind, but something was off with his pacing, as the tone was more morose and self-pitying than it needed to be. Certainly the young woman's death was a tragedy, and Jacob exhibited a grim determination to get even, but this was a curiously drab experience.
Not helping was that we had seen all this before, for a number of decades in fact, on film and television and quite a few books into the bargain, and the addition of an African seeker after the truth was not quite enough to lift it out of the routine. There were flashes of interest when our protagonist sprung into action, usually by inflicting violence on those who appeared to have information which could have been useful, but for the greater percentage of the plot, he was moping about meeting dodgy geezers and the women who are their victims. One such woman was Kelly (Teresa Palmer), who at least generated a degree of chemistry between her and Boseman as his character took a paternal interest in looking after her and her young daughter; she lives in the rundown hotel where he has temporarily settled.
And she works as a prostitute, the theme of powerful men taking awful advantage of the vulnerable underlined when we see Jacob getting his own back on them as a representative of the downtrodden. Among those powerful men was millionaire dentist Luke Evans, who knew the sister and may have exploited her, and was a novel embodiment of all that entitlement though the film was merely content to use him as a stereotypical posh English villain rather than build on him to any amount of distinction. Alfred Molina was there too, a producer in the TV and movie realm who uses his influence to make sure no questions are asked when he adopts the young son of the sister's dead boyfriend to sexually abuse him under the belief he is doing the kid good by putting a roof over his head. You get the idea, Message to the King was speaking on a strata of life that most would not wish to think about, but this was perhaps not the right way to go about it, it was a little dull for all the sensational elements. At least Boseman got to try out his Black Panther accent. Music by Vincent Cahay.