'The Warrior’s Gate': Film Review

The Warrior's Gate Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Intercontinental Film
'The Last Starfighter' in ancient China — kind of.

Time and space are crossed in this Chinese-French co-production featuring emerging PRC star Ni Ni, Hong Kong vet Francis Ng and galactic guardian Dave Bautista.

The latest from Luc Besson’s B-action-adventure factory owes a debt of gratitude to Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall for casting a long, obfuscating shadow for it to hide beneath, chiefly due to its Matt Damon-based whitewashing controversy. Unlike that film, which for better or worse had a plot that hinged on a foreign traveler in China, director Matthias Hoene’s The Warrior’s Gate truly does pivot on a “scrawny” white gamer saving a princess and ensuring peace for the Chinese realm. The $50-million film is the first in EuropaCorp and Shanghai-based Fundamental Films' three-pic co-production deal and is the latest East-West collaboration looking to cash in on the world’s (still) second-largest film market.

Retrograde in that tone-deaf Bessonian way but somehow innocuous at the same time, Warrior’s Gate isn’t fooling anyone if its approximate $3 million haul in China (ahead of Wall) is any indication. China’s rigid content code means the film is innocent enough to possibly find a YA audience (for YA audiences that are heavily into the 1980s) on the more youthful end of the spectrum in English-language markets as a diverting, alternative trifle; Dave Bautista’s moderate star power may help. Beyond that, Warrior’s Gate will fade into oblivion as yet another failed experiment.

In a contemporary, anonymous, vaguely California-ish town, Jack Bronson (Uriah Shelton of The Glades) is juggling his online gaming obsession, school bullies (naturally) and his mother Annie’s (Luther's Sienna Guillory) money anxiety. On the verge of losing their house, Jack takes home an antique box from the shop where the kindly Mr. Chang has given him a part-time job, which, lo and behold, is a portal to a mysterious land. Believing Jack to be the Black Knight — his online gaming avatar (don’t ask, the movie doesn’t really explain how this happens) — imperial warrior Zhao (So Young's Mark Chao) comes through with Princess Sulin (Ni Ni of Bride Wars) in tow. Before you can say “culture-clash romance,” Jack jumps into the portal and is transported to an equally anonymous place and time in ancient China.

From there the story wades into familiar territory, wherein the cowardly Jack, with his low self-esteem, is made brave and confident with martial help and wise words from Zhao and a chaste romance with Sulin. After somehow channeling his Black Knight alter ego and saving Sulin from a doomed marriage to the villainous Arun (Bautista) — despite the trained-since-birth-to-protect-the-emperor-Zhao's presence — Jack goes home and saves his mom, too.

There are few moments in Warrior’s Gate that seasoned viewers will not recognize for what they are the minute they happen. We know the second we meet him that Jack will exact some kind of revenge on his bully in the end; we know he’ll somehow save his home from foreclosure with his mad gaming skillz; and we know he’ll teach the upright Sulin and the uptight Zhao to bend the rules from time to time. Besson and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen’s (the Transporter and Taken series) script is peppered with moderately amusing comic bits — Hong Kong veteran Francis Ng as Wizard Wu channeling Charles Nelson Reilly and Arun's full title are high points — but the fish-out-of-water antics with Sulin at the mall and life lessons about avoiding personal challenges are purely cookie-cutter filmmaking. Like EuropaCorp’s last substantial hit, Lucy, Warrior’s Gate has its own ridiculous internal logic, but lacks the goofy glee that accommodates suspension of disbelief to go with it. Anachronistic English isn’t a new idea, nor is the blustery best buddy whose dialogue mostly comprises, "Duuuude, she's haaaawt," or the initial misunderstanding of martial arts philosophy. Fortunately, Bautista is on hand to deliver a spot-on, deadpan performance as the warlord surrounded by ineptitude who just wants to marry the heiress, kill her for the throne and conquer the world. He’s clearly co-starring in another, better movie in his head.

Technically, The Warrior’s Gate is up to snuff as a mid-budget action-fantasy, but director Hoene keeps things competent rather than creative, and shows little of the flair he did in Cockneys vs Zombies, hobbled perhaps by the dearth of truly florid English to play with.

Production companies: EuropaCorp, Fundamental Films
Cast: Uriah Shelton, Mark Chao, Ni Ni, Dave Bautista, Francis Ng, Sienna Guillory, Kara Wai, Henry Mah, Dakota Daulby, Luke McCandless-Davis, Zha Ka
Director: Matthias Hoene
Screenwriter: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen
Producer: Luc Besson, Mark Gao
Executive producer: Gregory Ouanhon, Ariel Zeitoun
Director of photography: Maxime Alexandre
Production designer: Hugues Tissandier
Costume designer: Helen Zhang
Editor: Audrey Simonaud
Music: Klaus Badelt
Casting: John Papsidera, Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels, Alicia Yao
World sales: EuropaCorp

Not rated, 107 minutes