Action, Ancient China, Black Knight, Dave Bautista, Drama, Fantasy, Mark Chao, Martial arts, Matthias Hoene, Ni Ni, Princess, Time travel, Uriah Shelton
D: Matthias Hoene / 107m
Cast: Uriah Shelton, Mark Chao, Ni Ni, Dave Bautista, Sienna Guillory, Francis Chun-Yu Ng, Zha Ka, Dakota Daulby, Luke Mac Davis
Jack Bronson (Shelton) is a teenager whose online gaming avatar, the Black Knight, is a complete badass, winning fantasy encounter after fantasy encounter. Away from his computer, however, he’s not quite so powerful or dominating. His life has its fair share of problems: his mother, Annie (Guillory), is a realtor who hasn’t sold a property in months (which means money is fast becoming an issue), and at school he’s being bullied by an older teen called Travis (Daulby). Jack does have a job, at least, even if it doesn’t pay an awful lot, but his boss likes him, enough to give Jack a gift: a large wooden, ornamental box. Jack takes it home and keeps it in his room. That first night, Jack wakes to find a sword at his throat, and an ancient Chinese warrior (Chao) asking if he’s the Black Knight. Even though he’s clearly not the fierce warrior the stranger is looking for, Jack is still given a task: to protect the Princess Su Lin (Ni) from harm.
The Princess is left in Jack’s care – but not before her bodyguard disappears back to their world via the box. The Princess is used to getting her own way, and it’s not long before she has Jack take her to the local mall so that she can learn how to blend in. But it’s also not long before mercenaries from the Princess’s world come for her, and despite Jack’s best efforts (which aren’t that great anyway), she’s taken back to her world. Jack follows, and finds himself in the company of the bodyguard, whose name is Zhoo. Soon, Jack learns that the Princess is the target of a murderous warlord called Arun the Cruel (Bautista). Arun plans to wed Su Lin, and once they’re married, kill her and assume the role of Emperor. Zhoo’s mission is to rescue her and kill the warlord. With the occasional aid of a wizard (Ng), and Jack himself, Zhoo sets off for the Imperial Palace.
Along the way they encounter danger in the form of three tree nymphs with a taste for human flesh, a number of Arun’s men, and having to cross a large lake despite Zhoo being unable to swim. Once at the Imperial Palace, their attempt to rescue the Princess is stalled, and they find themselves imprisoned. It’s only when a butterfly appears at their cell window that Zhoo is certain that his plan (which he’s making up as he goes along) will actually work.
If nothing else, The Warriors Gate proves that with great publicity comes greater accusations of racism. Zhang Yimou’s bloated melodrama The Great Wall (2016) came in for heaps of criticism for having an Occidental hero coming to China’s rescue when faced with hordes of rampaging dragons. Here, Matthias Hoene’s tiresome fantasy swaps Matt Damon’s Irish mercenary for Uriah Shelton’s whiny teenager as a Chinese dynasty comes under threat from a surly warlord who’s massively into face painting. And yet The Warriors Gate is just as guilty of cultural whitewashing as its more expensively mounted compatriot. More so, perhaps. How galling must it be for Chinese audiences to see their heritage, their culture, and their fierce warrior history ignored in favour of making the hero a – let’s say it again – whiny teenager.
Bad as this approach is, The Warriors Gate has far more things wrong with it than there are good. A pale imitation of the far more entertaining The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), Hoene’s follow-up to the low-concept, low return Cockneys vs Zombies (2012) sees him take a script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (who really should have known better) and turn it into a bland, functional, and entirely unremarkable teen fantasy movie that feels like it was made in the Nineties and has only recently secured a big screen release. With its bizarre set up, fortune cookie philosophising, bland time travel theatrics, agonising moments of teen humour, bullying subplot, cultural indifference to Chinese history, off-putting tonal shifts (sometimes in the same scene), and forgettable characters, the movie struggles hard to work on any level… and then struggles some more.
It’s a movie that steals from other, better movies too, and in doing so, only serves to highlight just how derivative and unoriginal it all is. Jack’s lack of self-confidence is such a staple of teen heroes and heroines these days that it’s a wonder any of them get out of bed in the first place. Naturally he has a skill that will enable him to defeat the bad guy, but the script can’t decide if it’s inside him all along or is something that he’ll need to learn. In the end, the movie settles for Jack being shown one single, semi-meditative pose and it’s all he needs to be the warrior Zhoo has been looking for. Inside of him all along, or a simple technique easily learned – either way Jack steps up and never looks back. And of course, everyone says they always believed in him (and yet Zhoo doubts him repeatedly).
There’s also the small issue of the reason Jack follows the kidnapped Princess into her world: he’s horny, has never been kissed, and fancies Su Lin like mad. (His hormones made him do it!) Even when he’s fully aware of what’s at stake if Arun’s plan succeeds, Jack is still thinking with his ‘nads, and though it’s unreasonable to assume he’s trying to help for more noble reasons, the movie keeps him firmly in place as a teenager with only one thing on his mind: getting the girl. With this level of ambition, it’s no wonder Jack is a character who screams “superficial!” when compared with his Chinese assistants – sorry, enablers. Unsurprisingly, Su Lin is attracted to Jack, but their romance has all the emotional clout of a Hallmark movie of the week.
The script sabotages itself too often for comfort. Arun the Cruel is revealed to be a pretty fair despot on the whole, and possessed of a sly line in humour. Bautista gets the tone right fortunately, but can’t do anything with the silly-sounding dialogue he’s lumbered with. As the Princess, Ni is allowed to be haughty for all of five minutes before falling for Jack’s, err, charms, while Chao has the dour straight man role and as a result, sometimes fades into the background. Ng is clearly enjoying his turn as a comedy wizard, while Guillory gets the thankless role of worried mother. The cast as a whole are hampered by having to deal with perfunctory characterisations and finding themselves unsupported by Hoene and the script. The fight sequences have a certain panache, but when the final showdown between hero and villain takes place, it’s too little too late (and no one ever explains why the Princess is hanging by her wrists the whole time).
Rating: 4/10 – sloppy writing and an uninspired vibe make The Warriors Gate (yes, there’s no apostrophe) a disappointing entry in the teen fantasy stakes; acceptable only if you don’t care enough to be insulted, the movie can best be summed up by stealing a paraphrased line from the New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott: it sets a very low bar for itself, and then trips over it repeatedly.