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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.

Plot: in a barbaric world one warrior must fulfill an ancient prophecy.

There are but two demographics who were really receptive to embracing the practice of DIY filmmaking, stunt actors and horror/science fiction enthusiasts. That not everybody can be a Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, or Tsui Hark was a given – but it seems more than a little unjust that stuntwoman/devil-do-all Cecily Fay is left in micro-budget hell whenever she isn’t working anonymously on Hollywood blockbusters. A woman with her skill set should be employed as an action director, fight choreographer, and weapons expert on productions with budgets that she’ll never command. It’s nigh on unbelievable that a woman like this wasn’t hired by Stallone for his The Expendables series or whenever America attempts another martial arts romp. Certainly indie directors like Rene Perez, Neil Johnson, and Benjamin Combes would know what to do with somebody her. Imagine what fireworks could be generated when Fay was partnered with somebody like Danielle C. Ryan, Antony Centurini, or Tara Macken. Warrioress provides ample evidence why such a partnership needs to happen. If this is what Cecily can do on her own, imagine her bundling her considerable forces with someone with actual clout.

Warrioress is a throwback to the barbarian movies - particularly the ones produced by Roger Corman in Argentina from the early-to-mid 1980s - following the break-away success of Arnold Schwarzenegger in John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982). Like its Argentinian forebears Warrioress too feels like a Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, Frank Frazetta, or Christophe Young painting brought to life. Albeit that it just as often looks as LARPing caught on home video. Just like Geisha Assassin (2008) and Ninja Apocalypse (2014) before it Warrioress has the thinnest veneer of a story as a preamble to have as many action sequences (brawls, confrontations, and duels – with and without weapons) as humanly possible. It’s primary concern is not one of world-building, the plot is at no point significant (or all that important), and it consists of just about every barbarian, steampunk, and post-nuke archetype under the sun. Before anything else, Warrioress is a showcase for Fay and her Babes With Blades collective and a demo reel extended into a 90-minute feature presentation. It’s one of those unfortunate instances where the digital box art is better than the film itself.

And who’s the creative force behind Warrioress? Cecily Fay. Fay is a British stuntwoman who has worked on Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) as well as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016), and Outlaw King (2018). This pint-sized powerhouse is a martial artist, choreographer, weapons expert, and a lifelong practitioner of tai chi and the Indonesian martial arts of pencak silat. With a resumé like that you’d expect at least some of her Hollywood friends to lend a hand. No such thing is the case. Warrioress is DIY from conception to execution. In practical terms that means that Fay was involved in every aspect of its creation with exception of directing. She may not stand… well, tall or anything at 4’9″ (1.45m), but Cecily is a force of nature otherwise. A British Michelle Yeoh, or Angela Mao Ying, if you will. Warrioress is the debut feature of both herself as a performer and the Babes with Blades Theater Group that she runs and something of a collaborative effort between herself and director Ross Boyask.

Once every generation the Danan Sidhe hold a tournament to choose their ultimate warrior. For long they have held a prophecy that a Chosen One would fight the northern tribes of the Ragganwold and unite the hordes. She would wield the Twin Sister Swords and crush the Falonex oppressor. The shamaness (Loveday Holly) believes that Boudiccu (Cecily Fay) is the prophesied Chosen One. When she wins the local tournament she’s send on a perilous quest by village sage Valexia (Penni Tovey). Believing her lover Finvarrah (Christian Howard) to be slain during a raid only enrages Boudiccu further beckoning her on her journey to the mythical Tombs of the Ancestors. Meanwhile the Emperor (Will Brenton) of the Falonex industrial empire has sent champion Djahn (Helen Steinway Bailey) to eliminate Boudiccu. Along the way she forges an alliance with Ragganwold warrioress White Arrow (Joelle Simpson). The two liberate White Arrow’s sister Silver Rain (Jennie Flader) and some of her kin from imprisonment. It’s then that Boudiccu realizes that the legends, the Prophecy, and the traditions of her people were just fables to maintain inter-tribal disputes. Her adversary in the battle of Prophecy is not some Falonex agent, but her ally White Arrow. After defeating White Arrow it dawns upon Boudiccu that the only way to keep the encroaching oppressor at bay is by joining the Ragganwold. As the two tribes unite under one banner, the Falonex mount an invasion to consolidate their regime…

Since the story isn’t all that important it’s no wonder that Warrioress has the look of a Renaissance Fair industrial film with a slight Celtic/steampunk/post-nuke bend. Seeing how Fay was clearly inspired by Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) the plot is a seemingly random combination of elements from Amazons (1986), The Sisterhood (1988), and Amazon Warrior (1998) and a twist straight out of Planet of the Apes (1968). The cinematography ranges somewhere between shaky home video and the better no-budget feature (along the lines of Alex Chandon and Nigel Wingrove) to the occassional semi-professional mise en scène (the early work of Rene Perez comes to mind) and the rare artsy shot reminiscent of something from the Arrowstorm catalogue. Overall, though, this remains squarely in the micro-budget/shot-on-video realm of amateur filmmaking. As impressive as the action direction, martial arts – and weapon choreography might be, everything surrounding it leaves a lot to be desired. From the hokey score, and the barely there continuity to the skimpy, highly impractical metallic cheerleader outfit that Cecily herself wears – Warrioress is the much overdue revival of Barbarian Queen (1985), and thus is trash of the highest order.

The reason to see Warrioress are, of course, the main women themselves: Cecily Fay, Joelle Simpson, and Helen Steinway Bailey. Fay (for obvious reasons) gets the most screentime and she’s involved in every action scene. The sheer amount of variety in weapons, number of participants, styles, and locations greatly add to the authenticity. Warrioress breathes Hong Kong with its fast-moving, acrobatic, and frequently gravity-defying stuntwork. Fights will often change while they happen. A brawl might split up into individual confrontations, duels that start as hand-to-hand altercations will change gears when weapons are introduced, and the weapons themselves range from swords, spears, to bows and axes and other sharp-edged utensils. The incredibly scenic locales all were publicly available spaces in and around Guernsey. Warrioress was shot in an combined 18 months over a marathon three-year period. It might not have the sheer inventiveness of, say, We're Going to Eat You (1980) or Bad Taste (1987) – but it is never for a lack of trying. It might not exactly look or sound spectacular, but at least Warrioress has ambition beyond being a thinly-veiled demonstration video.

Although principal photography started in 2011 it wouldn’t wrap until three years later. Mostly because photography was arranged around everybody’s availability and Simpson becoming pregnant twice. Warrioress spent the following year in post-production and the by time it would finally see release Helen Steinway Bailey had become one of the most in-demand stunt performers in the world, the British Tara Macken or Zoë Bell, if you will. In that capacity she has doubled for Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Chastain, Felicity Jones, and Nasim Predat in big budget event movies as Marvel Comics’ Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), Rogue One (2016), Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017), Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), and even the maligned Aladdin (2019). By the time Warrioress was finally released Fay was several years deep into pre-production and writing on her second feature. Ultimately Warrioress was a victim of unfortunate circumstance with characters, plotlines, and such being cut for any number of logistical or practical reasons. It was destined never to unlock its full potential, but Fay's second feature would. And with that feature she would maintain full creative control and man every department herself. Warrioress might not appeal to everybody, but Cecily Fay is definitely a woman on the rise.