The Warriors Gate
China/France, 2016, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 104 mins.
Director: Matthias Hoene.
West meets East in a so-so kiddies’ adventure saved by a sense of its own ridiculousness.
New Westminster, North America, the present day. Teenager Jack Bronson (Uriah Shelton) is a computer-game buff who lives with his single mother Annie (Sienna Guillory) and likes playing a mediaeval fantasy featuring The Black Knight. His mother says they may have to give up their house, as times are tough. While being chased by school bullies one day, Jack Bronson takes refuge in the antiques shop of Chang (Henry Mah), who gives him an ancient Chinese pot as a gift. Back home, Jack Bronson finds the pot acts as a time portal: one night a princess, Su Lin (Ni Ni), and her champion Zhao (Zhao Youting), appear in his bedroom, thinking he is The Black Knight and asking his help in saving their country from barbarians back in Ancient China. Jack Bronson says they’re mistaken, but Su Lin stays on, and is introduced by him to North American mall culture. When his home is invaded by barbarian warriors who’ve come through time to snatch Su Lin, Jack Bronson falls through a portal back to Ancient China, where Zhao tells him he must help save Su Lin, who’s been abducted by the barbarian Arun (Dave Bautista) so he can marry her and legitimise his conquest. A wizard, Wu (Wu Zhenyu), fills Jack Bronson in on the historical background, before the latter sets off with Zhao, encountering various demons en route.
Though the film is unlikely to figure prominently on their future CVs, China’s Ni Ni 倪妮 and Taiwan leading man Zhao Youting 赵又廷 [Mark Chao] emerge relatively unscathed from The Warriors Gate 勇士之门, a lazily written fantasy-adventure in which a North American teenager travels back to warring Ancient China. Framed (like the similarly cross-cultural The Forbidden Kingdom 功夫之王, 2008) with a lame beginning and end in the present-day, Gate is OK as a kiddies’ timewaster during its China section thanks to a sense of its own ridiculousness, smart editing, and an idiot-proof plot. Despite all that, it flopped in China with a feeble RMB23 million take, despite being released in 3-D.
Though the film has all the hallmarks of an East-West co-production – cultural stereotypes, forced plotting, and so on – and the main creative force is largely European, the decision to centre the modern bookends on a North American teenager seems to be from cynical commercial convenience rather than anything else: the kid isn’t called upon to save the planet and is largely sidelined once the action moves to Ancient China. Co-produced and co-written by French film-maker Luc Besson (with his longtime writing partner, American Robert Mark Kamen), directed by German-born Matthias Hoene, and made with largely French key crew, Gate would be improved by hacking back the modern bookends: the opening half-hour basically exists just to show how much an Ancient Chinese princess likes North American mall culture.
As it is, even sections like that aren’t quite as bad as one might expect, thanks to the actors’ light playing and a welcome sense of humour by director Hoene (if less up-front than in his debut feature, London-set horror spoof Cockneys vs Zombies, 2012). US TV star Uriah Shelton, who does have some martial-arts experience, is thankfully quite low-key, and has good chemistry with Ni in the early scenes. Once the action moves to Ancient China, however, Zhao largely takes over, and brings a surprisingly insouciant humour to his good-warrior role. Hong Kong’s Wu Zhenyu 吴镇宇 [Francis Ng] pops up now and then as a comic wizard to explain the plot, and US wrestler/MMA star Dave Bautista is solid enough as the growling, be-woaded, barbarian villain. UK actress Sienna Guillory has a nothing role as the teen’s terribly nice mother.
Though visual effects are only basic, the action is OK on an adrenalin level, thanks to close-up shooting and tight cutting; the downside, however, is that there’s no chance to appreciate any martial artistry. (Also, a cameo appearance by action veteran Hui Yinghong 惠英红 [Kara Hui], as a mountain witch, is set at night and virtually indecipherable.) Scoring by Germany’s Klaus Badelt (The Promise 无极, 2005; Shanghai, 2010) is okay Chinese-symphonic.
The North American scenes were shot in Canada. Despite being made in English, the film has yet to be released outside East Asia. Since 2016, Shanghai-based co-producer Fundamental Films 基美影业 has owned a 28% stake in Besson’s EuropaCorp.
Presented by Shanghai Fundamental Films (CN), EuropaCorp (FR), Fundamental Films (CN). Produced by Shangai Fundamental Films (CN), EuropaCorp (FR).
Script: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen. Photography: Maxime Alexandre. Editing: Audrey Simonaud. Music: Klaus Badelt. Production design: Hugues Tissandier. Art direction: Gilles Boillot, Christian Vallat. Costume design: Helen Zhang. Costume consultation: Edith Vesperini. Sound: Philippe Lecocq, Ken Yasumoto, Didier Lozahic, Matthieu Dallaporta. Action: Cheng Xiaodong [Tony Ching]. Visual effects: Christian Rajaud.
Cast: Zhao Youting [Mark Chao] (Zhao), Ni Ni (Su Lin, princess), Dave Bautista (Arun), Sienna Guillory (Annie, Jack Bronson’s mother), Uriah Shelton (Jack Bronson), Wu Zhenyu [Francis Ng] (Wu), Henry Mah (Chang, antiquarian), Hui Yinghong [Kara Hui] (mountain witch), Dakota Daulby (Travis), Xi Mengyao, You Tianyi (tree demons), Svitlana Zavialova.
Release: China, 18 Nov 2016; France, tba.