Skip to content

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.

Plot: one woman dares stand up against an evil industrialist empire.

The second Babes with Blades feature came three years after the entertaining but ultimately misguided Warrioress (2015). The Flower Of Sarnia was conceived and conceptualized during post-production on Warrioress (2015), and it was to be even more ambitious than the first. Once again everybody from the Babes with Blades stunt team was involved but this time Cecily Fay would not only write, produce, direct, edit, act, and score – she would also double as costume designer and action choreographer. Seeing it as an opportunity to showcase her team it’s a vehicle by, with, and for stunt people. A labor of love for everyone involved. The Flower Of Sarnia became Babes with Blades: The Flower Of Sarnia before being rebranded to just Babes with Blades. And that’s what it ultimately is all about. Call it truth in advertising. Babes With Blades delivers exactly what it promises. It’s about babes… with blades.

Whoever thought that Cecily Fay would give up after the protracted release of Warrioress (2015) might as well looks elsewhere because Cecily isn’t going anywhere. No, it seems all the troubles she was beset with during production of her debut feature only added more to her resolve to get a second out. And that perseverance and determination is at least to be admired, even in light of how Babes with Blades presents no real progress (from a technical – or writing standpoint) from Warrioress (2015). We’d love nothing more for Cecily than that she’s able to produce that one feature that would finally break her through to an audience beyond martial arts enthusiasts. To its credit Babes with Blades is in every way to superior to things like Geisha Assassin (2008), a glorified martial arts demo reel that didn’t so much pretend as to have a story. No. Babes with Blades suffers from exactly the opposite, the action scenes sometimes get in the way of the story. Where character scenes would’ve sufficed there are seemingly never-ending action scenes. Sometimes it just is better to have a character forward the story arch with words instead of punches, kicks, and blades.

The galaxy trembles under the tyrannical rule of the Visray empire. The planet Sarnia is “under seige” (no, really). Azura (Trudie Tume) is taken captive by the invading forces. Twelve years pass, and Azura (Cecily Fay) has escaped the clutches of her captors and now hides on the mining planet of Draiga 5. There she survives by staying out of sight. One day Azura is discovered and imprisoned by Visray patrols. She’s sold to slavetrader Sef (John Robb, as Jon Robb) and is forced into gladiatorial combat for the amusement of Section Commander Sorrentine (Joelle Simpson). Sorrentine is grooming her son Peltarion (Daniel Everitt-Lock) as a successor. The catacombs are overflowing with rebellion and the headforce – the brave Viridian (Cheryl Burniston), the feisty Amber (Yennis Cheung), and pricefighter Dahlia (Lauren Okadigbo) – have managed to plant a deep undercover operative in the court with Kewan (Michael Collin). Before long Azura is deemed recuperated enough for gladiatorial combat. It’s at this juncture that Kewan hands her an arcane tome from which she learns ancient martial arts.

Empowered by the knowledge from the tome Azura comes face to face with the fearsome and feared Andromeda (Jo Marriott) and later Freya (Heather McLean). Much to the chagrin of both Sef and Section Commander Sorrentine both end up defeated in the arena, and Azura soon becomes the people’s favorite combatant. With Azura’s popularity ever increasing the freedom fighters realize that the hour draws near. In Azura they not only have a formidable champion, but also their new messiah, linchpin, and figurehead for their plebeian revolution, an insurgence strong enough that it may topple the cruel Visray regime that has long oppressed them. When it’s time for Dahlia to combat Azura in the ring the various rebel factions must come together. Azura’s motives are of a more personal nature. Exacting revenge for the slaying of her people, and Section Commander Sorrentine is the most directly responsible. The only question is: can Azura put her vendetta aside and rise to lead the revolution?

While by no means original Babes with Blades manages to pack just about everything in what is not really a whole lot of story to begin with. The general template is that of Bloodsport (1988) with a central character archetype straight out of Spartacus (1960) and a non-ambiguous good-evil out of Star Wars (1977). All of that is overlain with a negligible dystopian science-fiction component and steampunk cosplay aesthetic. Sadly, it takes the route of Lithuanian shlockfest Amazons and Gladiators (2001) rather than that of Mortal Kombat (1995) (a masterclass in storytelling/worldbuilding through economic exposition and succint character introductions) or Gladiator (2000). At one point Azura is even put in a weaponized necklace, sort of like the kids in Battle Royale (2000). When Azura comes to face to face with Andromeda and Freya both get an introductory line in their respective fight, but the screenplay never introduces them properly, nor what milestone they represent in Azura’s ascent to legendary hero. Pacing is problematic at best and once past the 55 minute mark (when Azura’s gladiatorial combat wraps up) Babes with Blades sort of collapses in on itself.

All of this could have been easily resolved had each contestant represented an actual obstacle and a milestone in Azura’s growth as a character. This would have made her eventual duel with Dahlia that much more powerful, especially if we weren’t privy to the fact that Dahlia was actually a rebel – and even moreso if the reveal of Dahlia’s true loyalties coincided with the coup d'état staged by the uprising rebellion (that now anticlimactically transpires post the arena fights) crushing the Visray empire in one swift blow, simultaneously putting Azura in gladiatorial combat with her arch nemesis. Andromeda and Freya now appear as regular contestants and not imposing figures they were probably were meant as. Script problems aren’t the only thing that grind Babes with Blades down. There’s the expected shaky camerawork that either is hyper-active or positioned in such a way that the action is occasionally hard to follow, or that completely irrelevant things clog up the frame. The lighting in the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, South Yorkshire is mostly put to good use. Some of the more vibrant hues give it that artsy Mario Bava feel. The exteriors of the Crossness Pumping Station in London are good for what they are, but that’s about it. Given that this is the work of one woman makes it impressive in a technical sense. At least Cecily Fay is not Neil Breen. No, Fay’s modest catalogue is perhaps closest to pre-2013 Rene Perez.

And it’s not as if Cecily Fay, Lauren Okadigbo, and Yennis Cheung are novices either. No, that’s about as the furthest from the truth as you could get. Cecily Fay was a stunt performer in Prometheus (2012), and Skyfall (2012). Lauren Okadigbo was a stunt performer in Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and most recently doubled for Zendaya in Dune (2021) and Nathalie Emmanuel in F9 (2021). Yennis Cheung was in a handful of Hong Kong and South Korean martial arts movies in late 90s before relocating to the UK. That about makes Lauren Okadigbo the Helen Steinway Bailey of the piece. Music commentator and punk rock monument John Robb (of The Membranes and Goldblade, as well as editor-in-chief of Louder Than War magazine) is surprisingly solid as a poor man’s Vinnie Jones or Jason Statham. The focal point, of course, is Cecily herself. Don’t be fooled by her diminutive stature and petite frame, Fay is Britain’s own Angela Mao Ying, JeeJa Yanin, or Veronica Ngo and it’s nigh on unbelievable that this woman is practically unknown.

To its credit Babes with Blades offers a veritable avalanche of high-octane Hong Kong-inspired action routines but is marred by non-existent cinematography, choppy editing, a hokey score, and amateur actors with more enthusiasm than talent. The near-constant barrage of death-defying action sequences, both with weaponry and without, work exactly the way you want them to; but it are the character – and exposition scenes where Babes with Blades fails most glaringly. As Warrioress (2015) before it Babes with Blades has the thinnest veneer of story as a preamble to have as many action sequences as humanly possible and like that one this too often looks like a Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, or Frank Frazetta canvas brought to life. In other words, Babes with Blades is full of, well, babes in skimpy constumes and/or impractical armor. Fay’s Lollipop Chainsaw cheerleader costume pretty much is a futuristic make-over of the little number she wore in Warrioress (2015). Babes with Blades probably would do good in hiring Ukrainian bellydancer Diana Bastet as their resident costume designer. Whether Babes with Blades is actually an improvement over Warrioress (2015) depends entirely on your preference for no-budget, shot-on-video action demo reels with an absolute dearth of story. Since this one comes bearing The Flower Of Sarnia as chapter title that reasonably suggests there’s going to be sequels at some point. When, and if, it does hopefully it comes bearing Ken Kelly or Lorenzo Sperlonga poster art.