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Plot: vacationers face mercenaries, zombies, and cannibalistic monks.

The eighties was the last great hurrah for classic Filipino exploitation. As the 90s dawned Hollywood reinforced its grip on the international market with big budget, special effects-driven event movies that no little independent could ever begin to compete with. The decline of grindhouse theaters as well as the ever-expanding home video market cut directly into profit margins that were already razor-thin to begin with at this point. South America and Asia had served American producers and distributors well, but the eighties would signal the end of that too. In those waning days of dwindling budgets and shrinking international distribution elder institutions like Cirio H. Santiago, and Bobby A. Suarez managed to churn out their last classics. Santiago even was strong enough to survive the nineties. There was no doubt about it, though, the Pinoy exploitation industry, once so indefatigable and resilient, was starting to run on fumes. Like any good fighter it wouldn’t go out on a wimper. Raw Force was one of those sub-classics that kept the Philippines afloat in those dark sullen days.

The men behind Raw Force were Lawrence H. Woolner and Edward D. Murphy. Murphy was a professional boxer and bit part actor, and no stranger to the Philippines. As an actor he had gained valuable on-set experience working on Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968) from director duo Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero and as a producer Woolner was involved with the Antonio Margheriti giallo Naked You Die (1968). Half a decade later he would act as a presenter on Beyond Atlantis (1973). By the eighties he and his brother Bernard had firmly established Dimension Pictures. Under that banner he had produced several Stephanie Rothman features and now the company was looking for a rookie to write/direct a script based on an idea Larry had been kicking around. This project would combine two then-hot commodities that did good business at the grindhouses: martial arts and zombies. It’s almost as if Woolner saw Tsui Hark’s We’re Going to Eat You (1980) and couldn’t wait to do a Filipino-American action/martial arts take on it. There are enough similarities to warrant the comparison and to be mere coincidence. The cast Woolner was able to attract was the stuff cult cinema dreams are made of. To make it even better: Raw Force is just non-stop delicious gory fun.

The members of the Burbank Karate Club - Mike O’Malley (Geoffrey Binney, as Geoff Binney), John Taylor (John Dresden) and Gary Schwartz (John Locke) – have reserved a place on the cruise of foul-mouthed gun-fetishist Harry Dodds (Cameron Mitchell) and his often booze-addled business partner Hazel Buck (Hope Holiday) for their vacation. Also on the boat are vacationing platinum blonde LAPD SWAT member Cookie Winchell (Jillian Kesner, as Jillian Kessner) and her fellow blonde cousin Eileen (Carla Reynolds). Dodds is in the habit of making confused mildly-racist remarks to his Filipino first mate about opening a Chinese restaurant while soft spoken martial arts expert Go Chin (Rey Malonzo, as Rey King) slaves away in the kitchen. Before setting course for the South China Sea Dodds first embarks on a tour of the nearby ports where the occupants are free to engage in heavy partying. It’s here that Cookie, Eileen, John, and Gary go watch a martial arts competition while others go boozing at the Lighthouse Bar. Mike and Lloyd Davis (Carl Anthony) visit the local brothel (or “cathouse” as they call it here) The Castle Of 1001 Pleasures where madam Mayloo (Chanda Romero) overhears that they’re tourists and hands them a leaflet about Warrior Island.

At the Lighthouse Bar thick German-accented, twitchy-eyed, middle-aged accountant Thomas Speer (Ralph Lombardi) (who sports the fashion-conscious combo of horn rimmed glasses, a white suit, and a Hitler mustache) is engaged in matters pertaining his jade import business when he overhears the American tourists. Seeing an opportunity Speer decides that no matter what the cost the Americans must end up on Warrior Island (an island bypassed by the Japanese during World War II as it, according to local folklore and superstition, was the place where disgraced martial artists commited suicide) as he has an understanding with the head monk (Vic Diaz) to provide warm bodies for his sexslave trading – and transport for his drug trafficking ring. When Speer’s merry goons try to kidnap Captain Dodds at the bar the incident inevitably ends up inciting an all-out brawl.

Speer’s goons are thwarted in their attempt forcing the German to wait it out. Upon nightfall he and his goons assault the ship in numbers leading to massive casualties and the vessel’s fiery destruction. The Americans manage to escape but are forced to make landfall on Warrior Island (whether it’s close to Savage Beach or Taboo Island is, sadly, never made clear). When Mike recognizes one of the slave girls as Mayloo, the proprietress of a brothel he and Lloyd visited on the mainland, it threatens to expose the monks’ true motives. As the situation deteriorates the strangers must learn to work together if they are to keep out of the the clutches of the ruthless mercenaries, the jaws of the sword-wielding undead, and the maws of the cannibalistic monks at the source of all the horror on the island.

And who exactly is in the cast, you wonder? Pulp mainstay Cameron Mitchell, famous around these parts for his roles in Blood and Black Lace (1966), The Toolbox Murders (1978), Supersonic Man (1979), and Blood Link (1982). Jillian Kesner from Evil Town (1977), Starhops (1978), and Naked Fist (1981). Carla Reynolds from Night Games (1980), Bits and Pieces (1985), and Maniac Cop (1988) and Don Gordon Bell from Cleopatra Wong (1978), Naked Fist (1981), Stryker (1983), Wheels of Fire (1985), Naked Vengeance (1985), Silk (1986), and Red Roses, Call for a Girl (1988). Joe Pagliuso from Revenge of the Ninja (1983), and Jerry Bailey from American Ninja (1985). Then there are television actors Geoffrey Binney, Hope Holiday (Mitchell's then-girlfriend), John Dresden, Jennifer Holmes, and Robert MacKenzie as well as Filipino exploitation veterans Rey Malonzo, Chanda Romero, and Vic Diaz whose combined filmographies are too extensive to detail. If all of that wasn’t enough there are brief cameos from Carl Anthony from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), and The Sinister Urge (1960); Hong Kong martial arts pillar Maggie Li Lin-Lin (李琳琳), Jewel Shepard from H.B. Halicki’s The Junkman (1982), and Return Of the Living Dead (1985); Camille Keaton from Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978), and Mike Cohen from the Weng Weng spy caper For Your Height Only (1981). Where else are you going to see a cult ensemble like this?

The good part? Raw Force is just as crazy as it sounds, and it’s never apologetic about it. During the Lighthouse Bar brawl one particularly dedicated exotic dancer continues her routine dutifully, in what was either left in intentionally or a case of very sloppy editing, seemingly unfazed by the property destruction happening around her. The boat scenes is made campy by the fact that the water around it is completely still. Evidently all the scenes, both on-deck and off, were filmed stationary. During the onboard party director Murphy spends inordinate amount of time pointing his camera at the various female cast members in advanced stages of undress. In true exploitation fashion each cast member develops a sudden aversion towards fabric and the camera takes a leering look at the heaving bosoms and bottoms of various nubile bit part actresses and no-name extras. The party segment not only will have you counting familar faces, there’s enough female nudity to satiate anyone’s craving. On top of all that, there’s a truly wonderful amount of gags, both visual and otherwise, that can be spotted during this section. Once the group makes landfall on Warrior Island Raw Force pulls out all stops as Murphy rips through action movie clichés as martial artists, cannibalistic monks, and explosions all happen in quick succession. That the piranha attack scene was borrowed liberally from Piranha (1978) makes it even better.

Boasting a star-studded cast of American hopefuls and Filipino veterans as well as a wide array of cult cameos Raw Force is almost guaranteed to have you in stitches. The action direction and fight choreography was handled by Mike Stone with exception of the Lighthouse Bar brawl that Murphy choreographed himself. The only thing Murphy would direct after Raw Force would be Heated Vengeance (1985). Meanwhile he continued acting in bit parts in, among others, the comedy 3 Men and a Baby (1987), the crime epic Goodfellas (1990), and the thriller Doppelganger (1993). His claim to fame is playing thirteen different guest roles in as much episodes on Law & Order (1991-2000). Producer and director of photography Frank E. Johnson would go on to do second unit cinematography on Predator (1987). Allegedly the original cut ran about 105 minutes but to get most out of their investment Raw Force was trimmed down to a more grindhouse- and audience-friendly 86 minutes. When, and if, there’s ever going to be a fully restored director’s cut is anyone’s guess. A sequel, purported to have starred Jonathan Winters as the ex-husband of Hope Holiday's character and Mitchell reprising his role as Captain Dodds, was planned (hence the “to be continued” in the credits) but as fate would have it, Woolner tragically passed away some three years later in 1985. Understandably, the promised sequel never materialized. Some things just are better without any sequels. Raw Force is one of those things.

Plot: passive gamer must defend ancient China from barbaric warlord.

The only thing that The Warriors Gate (released in Mainland China as 勇士之門 and most of the English-speaking world The Warriors Gate – except in North America where it was called Enter the Warriors Gate) has going for it that it’s more or less a remake of The Forbidden Kingdom (功夫之王) (2008), which was in dire need of remaking because… it was only eight years old? The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) had the good fortune to have both Jet Li and Jackie Chan. The Warriors Gate makes the exact same mistakes that made The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) so reviled among fanatics who actually watch and know Asian martial arts and wuxia films. The Warriors Gate is a Chinese co-production with about three name stars but written, produced, and directed by a bunch of Europeans and Americans who seem to have no understanding of the nuances and subtleties of a good period costume wuxia, except that they typically feature high-flying, wire-fu action choreography, beautiful women in ornate dresses and heroic storylines full of betrayal, quests, and arcane magic. The Warriors Gate has all of that to lesser or greater degree, but has apparently no idea what to do with any of it. It almost makes you yearn for The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017).

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) had Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Liu Yi-Fei, and Li Bing-Bing with action choreography from Yuen Wo-Ping. In short it had the best acting talent in the business, two of the best martial artists of their generation, and an action choreographer who was a dyed in the wool producer and director. By comparison The Warriors Gate, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding, is almost entirely made up of nobodies. Or at least nobody for anyone coming to this from the Asian perspective. Ni Ni, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, and Kara Hui Ying-Hung are all superstars back in Mainland China and it’s insulting enough that talent of this caliber has to appear in western dreck like this to stay working in between better projects. Ni Ni - bombarded to the next big mou girl after beloved icons as Gong Li, Joey Wong, and Brigitte Lin – has talent to spare and here she’s practically reduced to the role of obligatory love interest? Francis Ng Chun-Yu is a versatile supporting actor and he’s reduced to a few ticks. No one suffers a fate poorer than Kara Hui Ying-Hung who’s forced to wear a silly costume and isn’t even given the decency of a single fighting scene. Tony Ling Chi-Wah’s action direction is up to the expected standard, but it’s too little too late. That director Matthias Hoene got his start in music videos is also abundantly clear. Luc Besson is a good enough producer of mass audience swill but everything clearly went haywire here.

Jack Bronson (Uriah Shelton) is a passive layabout who’s in no hurry to become upwardly mobile and more pro-active to make something of his life. Jack is bullied at school and shunned by members of the fairer sex. To forget his first world problems he lives like a hermit and plays too much videogames with his tubby friend Hector (Luke Mac Davis). His mother Annie (Sienna Guillory) is an overworked and underpaid realtor who tries her darndest to keep a roof over his head. One day Jack takes home an ancient jar from the antiquity shop where he works after school. According to Mr. Cheng (Henry Mah) the jar comes from Beijing and possesses special powers. Jack doesn’t pay too much attention to Mr. Cheng’s stories until one night he finds himself on the wrong end of a blade wielded by the warrior Zhao (Mark Chao You-Ting) who was given specific instructions to seek out the Black Knight (Ron Smoorenburg), Jack’s avatar in his favorite fighting game, and the one prophezied to liberate the empire.

The empire has fallen before the barbaric hordes of Arun the Cruel, the Horrible, the Terrible, the Miserable (Dave Bautista). Arun plans to crown himself Emperor by forcing headstrong Princess Su Lin (Ni Ni) into an arranged marriage to consolidate his power. Any opposition will swiftly be slain by his forces under command of general Brutus (Zha Ka). According to the Wizard (Francis Ng Chun-Yu) a brave warrior from a far off land will come and embark on a perilous quest taking him across the mountains. There he will vanquish the mountain witch (Kara Hui Ying-Hung) and escape the clutches of the seductive nymphs (Ming Xi, Tianyi You, and Lijie Liu). During his quest this warrior will unlock incredible powers within himself that will allow him to free the Princess from captivity and defeat Arun once and for all… The thing is, Jack isn’t too sure he’s the guy they’re looking for. What in the world could somebody as small and insignificant like him possibly amount to?

As a producer, writer, and director Luc Besson has had a hand in titles as diverse as Nikita (1990), Léon (1994), The Fifth Element (1997), Taxi (1998), Joan of Arc (1999), Ong-bak (2003), District B13 (2004), Bandidas (2006), The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010), and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). We would be remiss to mention that Besson in recent years stood at the cradle of the very lucrative Taken and The Transporter franchises, not even mentioning that both Nikita and Taxi were remade for the American market in 1993 and 2004, respectively. That Besson came from humble beginnings and started his career with The Last Battle (1983) (which evolved from a short feature he directed in 1981). His first big break was directing the ‘Pull Marine’ music video from Isabelle Adjani in 1984.

Since The Warriors Gate is a western production that just happens to be filmed in China it obviously isn’t going to be overly concerned with appealing to a Chinese audience. It looks like a fantasy wuxia with a western protagonist but The Warriors Gate is an East meets West comedy first, a buddy cop movie second, and a fantasy wuxia (which it barely qualifies as) or period costume epic distant third. It doesn’t help that it was written by Robert Mark Kamen who wrote the excellent three original The Karate Kid (1984-1989) movies, the fourth (and final) episode The Next Karate Kid (1994) and the wholly redundant 2010 remake with Jackie Chan. In recent years he penned the science fiction romp The Fifth Element (1997), the western spoof Bandidas (2006) (with Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek), most of the Taken and The Transporter movies as well as Colombiana (2011), a South American take on Besson’s own Nikita (1990). In other words, there was no way that The Warriors Gate was going to be good.

Ni Ni (倪妮) was in a far better domestic movie the same year with the rom com Suddenly Seventeen (2016). It’s strange enough hearing her speak (phonetic) English or why she even agreed to a flowervase role in a western co-production. Why reduce an actress of Ni Ni’s stature to what is essentially a glorified girlfriend role? Talk of wasting talent! Uriah Shelton is mostly famous for his turn in Disney Channel series Girl Meets World (2014-2017). Equally lamentable is Sienna Guillory, now a decade removed from Eragon (2006), and back in bad movie oblivion yet again. Her presence in the entirely pointless 2010 remake of The Time Machine (1960) was plenty of evidence that Guillory is destined to remain a second-tier. She wasn’t able to land a decent script or role since the British ensemble rom com Love Actually (2003). Dave Bautista does his best Gerard Butler impression. His barbarian horde look as a mix between Mongol and Viking warriors complete with over-the-top warpaint and Dimmu Borgir wardrobe. It’s as if Besson wanted Butler but he had committed to Gods Of Egypt (2016), so Besson settled for the second best. Francis Ng Chun-Yu (吳鎮宇) is wasted on a comic relief role as Wizard and he was in far more enjoyable HK action flicks as Devil Hunters (1989) (with Moon Lee) and the fantasy wuxia The Bride with White Hair (1993) (with Brigitte Lin). Likewise is Kara Hui Ying-Hung (惠英紅) reduced to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as a mountain witch. It begs the question why Besson hired Hui and then proceeded to not giving her any fighting scenes whatsoever. Hui is known for her martial arts prowess and was last seen around these parts in the enjoyably kinetic Madam City Hunter (1993). To say that the Chinese talent is wasted on this western action-adventure swill is putting it very mildly.

What mostly kills The Warriors Gate isn’t so much the assembled talent, but Kamen’s trainwreck of a screenplay that raises more questions than it answers. There’s suspension of belief and taking some artistic license and then there’s something as futile as this. It’s never specified what period this is supposed to be set in or in what region of China for that matter. It’s insulting enough that the fate of an ancient Chinese empire hinges upon a Caucasian westener or that every Chinese character speaks perfect English. If there’s one good thing about The Warriors Gate it’s that it puts Ni Ni in a variety of beautiful, colorful dresses and even some urban casual wear. Given that this is a Robert Mark Kamen script we’re supposed to take it as an underdog story and East meets West comedy which is pretty much the only thing Kamen is good at writing. Where the interactions between Italian-American working class teen Daniel LaRusso and senior aged Okinawan martial artist Keisuke Miyagi were playful and innocent nothing is particularly funny or insightful about the sparring between Jack and Zhao. Miyagi learned Daniel-san something about the world, about himself, about karate. You’d imagine that Jack picks up a thing or two during the second act as they traverse the land for something or other, but no such thing appears to be the case here. The only Hollywood convention that The Warriors Gate doesn’t conform to is giving Jack a girlfriend by the end of the picture, although it’s hinted that Su Lin has taken an interest in him. The comedic bits with Su Lin in the modern world are decent, mostly because Ni Ni does all the heavy lifting requiring Uriah Shelton only to react. The running gag with Arun’s “Kill him, Brutus! No, not him! Him!” is worth a chuckle.

It sort of begs the question why this was necessary. The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) is still widely available for anyone wanting to see it, and it wasn’t exactly a genre classic in need of reimagining. In place of making this a serious period costume or fantasy wuxia this is the umpteenth trainwreck of western filmmakers invading upon territory that isn’t their own and making complete fools of themselves in the process. Much to the delight of Sino audiences, likely. Asian and western audiences have different cinematic expectations and sensibilities. The Warriors Gate is the western equivalent of Chinese-Thai co-production Angel Warriors (2013) which is to say that it fails in every aspect but there’s enough pretty faces to look at. That the western world is finally giving Ni Ni a chance (after Fan Bing-Bing, Zhang Ziyi, and Liu Yi-Fei as well as Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra, to name a few recent examples) can only be applauded. However there must be better roles for actresses of her caliber and repute. The Warriors Gate exemplifies just about everything wrong with international co-productions. Sino – and European cinema has far better things to offer than brainless swill like this. The Warriors Gate should have been so much more than what it ended up being. See it for the Sino talent (Ni Ni, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, and Kara Hui Ying-Hung), Dave Bautista, Sienna Guillory, and pray that they find more worthy projects, domestic and abroad.