A major co-production between China and France, The Warriors Gate is the brainchild of Luc Besson, who in addition to producing it, co-wrote it with his The Fifth Element/Kiss of the Dragon/Taken/The Transporter partner Robert Mark Kamen. It follows Jack (Uriah Shelton), a stereotypical American geek who shares his time between video games, biking and being bullied by the jocks in his class. His father is out of the picture and his sweet mother (Sienna Guillory) can’t quite make ends meet, so they might have to move out of their house if she can’t make a payment soon. His only friends are an obese fellow geek who calls himself the “octoman” and Chang, a Chinese shopkeeper who employs him from time to time. One day, the latter gives an ancient Chinese box to Jack, who starts using it as a container for his dirty laundry. But one night, a princess named Su Lin (Ni Ni) and her bodyguard Zhao (Mark Chao) emerge from that box, right into his bedroom. They come from Ancient China and are looking for the Black Knight, a fearless hero who is none other than Jack’s video game avatar. Despite the mix-up, Zhao leaves Su Lin in the custody of this scrawny teenager, until a few days later barbarians barge into the house through the same box and kidnap Su Lin. Jack is transported into Ancient China, where he’s welcomed by a zany wizard (Francis Ng) and reluctantly embarks on a quest with Zhao to rescue the princess from the hands of the barbarian king Arun (Dave Bautista).
Before even getting into the agonizing ridiculousness of this plot, it’s worth mentioning how derivative it is of Rob Minkoff’s enjoyable adventure The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), with Jackie Chan and Jet Li. In both films, a bullied American teenager is given a magical artifact by a Chinese shopkeeper and is transported back to Ancient China where he gets two mentors, a goofy one and a stern one, learns martial arts, falls in love with a kick-ass Chinese girl, and then comes back to fight his bullies and eventually get the girl, even though she’s Ancient. This is almost unofficial remake territory. Derivativeness aside, it’s a typical Luc Besson trope to try and cram a film with as many elements perceived to be appealing to his target demographic as possible. And the first half-hour of The Warriors Gate includes online video-games! Extreme biking! Hip Hop dancing! The kids are going to lap this up! They didn’t, the film died a swift death at the Chinese box office.
The Warriors Gate also induces cringe with the outlandish and endlessly belief-obliterating ridiculousness of its plot (see the first paragraph), especially in an overblown wish-fulfilling angle, reminiscent of many an eighties’ quest film, but stretched to absurd proportions: over the course of 100 minutes, the scrawny, slap-worthy Jack gets to not only fend off his bullies and kiss a girl (reasonable goals even though the latter is an empress), but also defeat countless barbarians with instantly-acquired martial arts (no training montage here, just magical powder), and create and sell a video game based on his adventure. For the sake of wish-fulfillment, we are expected to believe Ni Ni’s combat-ready Chinese princess not only falls in love with Uriah Shelton’s pasty, skinny, whiny American teenager, rather than with Mark Chao’s dedicated and impossibly handsome warrior, but also needs to be rescued by said teenager repeatedly over the course of the film.
And yet, there are many saving graces. First, The Warriors Gate unfolds in a consistently tongue-in-cheek tone that makes its ridiculousness go down a treat. No self-seriousness here, director Matthias Hoene’s humor shines through in every scene, from the usual time period lag gags (both for the ancient princess in modern-day America and for the modern-day teenager in Ancient China), to unsubtle but delicious black humor (Dave Bautista’s baddie has a particularly stupid henchman who keeps killing the wrong people). And there’s snappy dialogue that is rarely fresh but always enjoyable. The cast is uniformly excellent. Ni Ni, who followed up her superb debut in Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War with a string of forgettable comedies, is simply glorious. Exquisitely beautiful, instantly likable, blessed with excellent comic timing, and speaking in the most charming English, she seems ready to take over the world.
Mark Chao, who’s been a bit bland in better films, here shines with a charismatic turn full of self-deprecation (witness him shyly attempting to breakdance during the film then doing so in full armor over the end credits). Francis Ng is all too scarcely-seen, but whenever on screen he lets loose with delightful Ng-ish weirdness, while Kara Hui makes a memorable fighting cameo as a crazy enchantress. Dave Bautista takes a stock barbarian baddie in amusing directions with equally excellent comic timing, while Uriah Shelton actually possesses charm, once one manages to get past the eyesore of an American teenager in a hoodie blabbing away in Ancient China. Action by Tony Ling Chi Wah is serviceable, with the highlight a house fight where Ni Ni clobbers a horde of barbarian henchmen, to the tune of Klaus Badelt’s energetic score.
Long Story Short: Derivative, ridiculous and often cringe-inducing, The Warriors Gate is nevertheless made quite enjoyable by omnipresent humor, a great cast and passable action. ***