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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: can Anna save Christmas from the maws of the living dead?

Is it possible to re-enact an earlier movie almost verbatim, spice it up just enough with that original touch that only great directors possess, and pass it off as something new? Apparently, the answer to that is: yes, you can. Anna and the Apocalypse is the Scottish answer to Shaun Of the Dead (2004) – but is centered around young adults and has a musical backbone. Perhaps Rachel Bloom’s limited series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019) has left a more of an impact on Hollywood than we’d give it credit for. No matter how much Anna and the Apocalypse steals from the original Edgar Wright classic it somehow staunchly remains its own thing. Anna and the Apocalypse is incredibly vanilla on all fronts, but especially so on the horror aspect. This is not a valentine to George A. Romero nor to all things living, dead, and undead for that matter. At heart this is your average, albeit expertly photographed, teen drama – be it with a zombie apocalypse.

What sets Anna and the Apocalypse apart from more conventional zombie horror is that before anything and everthing else it’s a teen drama first. It does the exact opposite of what Shaun Of the Dead (2004) famously did before. Where Edgar Wright made a zombie horror with a rom-com subplot, Anna and the Apocalypse is a rom-com with a zombie horror subplot. And it plays it completely straight too. Whenever the music swells characters will break into impromptu song-and-dance numbers. These numbers arrive at logical places in the story (especially for anybody who has a passing familiarity with either Bollywood or musicals in general) and enhance characterisations in ways that dialogue can’t. As such Anna and the Apocalypse is more of the The Breakfast Club (1985) and Freaks and Geeks (1999) persuasion with colorful production design and feel-good writing etching towards Enchanted (2007) on a limited budget. If the late John Hughes ever did a zombie horror, it’d probably have looked like this. Except that it’s obviously never as swooning and sophisticated as anything Hughes ever did.

Little Haven, Scotland is the sort of sleepy town where never much of anything happens. Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt) is about to finish school and supposed to attend the university of her choice. Instead she’d love to travel for a year and see the world, but she doesn’t want to disappoint her widower father Tony (Mark Benton). Her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming) is an art student – and madly in love with her. Anna is too preoccupied with the unpleasant rumors that her ex boyfriend Nick (Ben Wiggins) keeps spreading about her to notice. Her friend Chris (Christopher Leveaux) is an amateur filmmaker and currently struggling with an assigment from Ms. Wright (Kirsty Strain), and his girlfriend Lisa Snow (Marli Siu) will be performing at the Christmas recital. Transfer student and budding investigative journalist Steph North (Sarah Swire) has difficulty selling an article critical about the growing housing - and vagrancy problem in the area to tyrannical principal Arthur Savage (Paul Kaye). Anna and John are working at the local bowling alley and Chris and Steph are volunteering at the homeless shelter when that night a zombie apocalypse occurs. The next morning Anna wakes up completely oblivious to the shambling living dead around her. Anna decides to return to the bowling alley and there she and Steph are forced to kill cleaning lady Mrs. Hinzmann (Janet Lawson). When the army send in to evacuate the school and the town is devoured by the undead the gravity of the situation dawns upon them. The only way to rescue their loved ones is to face and oppose the hordes of walking dead blocking the way.

Anybody who has seen Shaun Of the Dead (2004) will immediately notice how blatant and obvious Anna and the Apocalypse is about its naked homaging thievery. Yet despite repurposing the Shaun Of the Dead (2004) plot almost entirely and even re-enacting key scenes what makes Anna and the Apocalypse work is the pervading feel-good Christmas spirit and the rom-com undercurrent. John McPhail must have loved Freaks and Geeks (1999) because he dresses Ella Hunt exactly like Linda Cardellini in that series. The interludes alternate between angsty teenybopper songs that are surprisingly emotional and edgy self-aware songs with bitingly ironic lyrics. Lisa’s raunchy Christmas carol is an unrelenting barrage of spicy double-entendres, racy witticisms, and a boatload of unbridled sexual innuendo and is side-splittingly hilarious for exactly those reasons. Since horror was never its primary focus the winks and nods to classic zombie cinema are, understandably, far and few between. Mrs. Hinzmann is the most obvious, directly referencing Bill Hinzman or the first zombie that Barbra encounters in Night Of the Living Dead (1968). Ms. Wright is a direct, and obvious, nod to Edgar Wright. Anna riding John around in a shopping cart kinda-sorta resembles the corresponding scene with Peter and Roger in Dawn of the Dead (1978). Principal Savage’s demise at the hands of the undead at least in part evokes that of Rhodes’ in Day Of the Dead (1985). The scene with Anna and John bonding in the snow is reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind (2004).

The cast consists mostly of workhorse television actors and while nobody’s acting is particularly awful, only Ella Hunt and Marli Siu transcend the material in the positive sense. Hunt had starred in Robot Overlords (2014) prior and was an extra in Les Misérables (2012). Other than that there isn’t really a whole to say, either positively or negatively, here. The effects work is delightfully old-school with a good amount of in-camera practical effects with digital enhancement and computer imagery for the more ambitious shots. In a time where apparently everything is now done digitally (from exit wounds, blood spatters to muzzle flashes and atmospheric effects) it makes you long for those now distant simpler times when practical effects wizards as Stan Winston, Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, John Carl Buechler, and Kevin Yagher were in constant demand. The ubiquity and affordability of digital effects has become somewhat of a bane to modern cinema and while we understand it from an economic viewpoint practical effects had a charm all their own. Anna and the Apocalypse is probably not going to usher in a new age of practical effects, it’s a little too vanilla for that, but at least its heart is in the right place. Plus the whole Christmas theme is merely decorative, never serving to either distract or annoy.

While your mileage obviously may, can, and likely will, vary Anna and the Apocalypse works well enough as both a rom-com and as a zombie horror. What it lacks in flavor, bite, and personality as far the horror aspect is concerned it more than compensates by being a colorful Christmas-themed romance that banks heavily on the feel-good. As these things go, you could do far, far worse. Don’t go in expecting any major revelations or grand deviations from a well-established formula. This is not that kind of movie. Anna and the Apocalypse never diverges from the well-trodden path and its adherence to formula and convention is what makes it a very easy viewing. Which isn’t to say that this is some overlooked classic. It obviously is not. It’s just as light as it is vapid. For those of whom who always wanted a Shaun Of the Dead (2004) for the young adult crowd, this is your chance. There’s a time and place for stuff like this. Anna and the Apocalypse is good for what it is, even if it never aspires to be anything more.