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It's no classic, but some tongue-in-cheek humour and a generally light-hearted tone makes this East-West mishmash more entertaining than you're probably expecting it to be
It may wear its tag of being the first significant 'French-Chinese co-production' proudly on its sleeve, but 'The Warrior's Gate' is really no more than a rehash of another East-meets-West action comedy that you may remember from about a decade ago called 'The Forbidden Kingdom'. Like the latter, it sends an American teenager back to ancient China where he learns to summon the warrior inside of him and teams up with a noble companion to save a kingdom from the clutches of an evil warlord. Like the latter, its humour is based on self-aware anachronism and its action of the traditional 'wushu' variety. And last but not least, like the latter, it lets its modern-day Caucasian male protagonist fall in love with a steely yet gentle female from that era, the inter-ethnic coupling not only to pander to the teenage demographic but also to ensure its appeal to audiences on both sides of the continent. And yet, if you're willing to put aside the obvious similarities, you're likely to find this reiteration more entertaining than you're expecting it to be.
Such faint praise however is also premised on little expectation at the start, which is a prerequisite for any manner of enjoyment. You should not, in the first instance, expect it to make much sense, for it gives scant regard to logic or coherence. As its hero Jack Bronson (newcomer Uriah Shelton) does, you should simply accept with little question that the English-speaking Chinese warrior Zhao (Mark Chao) in steel armour and straw hat who suddenly appears next to his bedside one evening has indeed travelled through a time portal in a waist-height drum-shaped chest he had received as a gift from the antiques dealer he helps out at after school. You should also accept the warrior's explanation that the young lady who shows up with him dressed like a princess (Ni Ni) is indeed one, and that she is on the run from some very terrible people. And while we're at it, you should accept that you are the hero they seek called 'The Black Knight' because that is the name of your avatar in a similar video game and not hesitate to journey back in time to fulfil your destiny. Like we said, disbelief is pointless if you intend to buy into its premise.
And so begins a fantasy adventure that sees Jack jump into the portal when said Princess Sulin is kidnapped by fierce-looking Mongol and Viking-like warriors and taken back to ancient China, where the barbarian named 'Arun the Cruel, the Horrible, the Terrible, the Miserable' (or 'Arun the Cruel' in short, played by Dave Bautista) has arranged their forced marriage in order to become Emperor. Jack thus teams up with Zhao to journey across the undulating lands to Arun's lair, with some timely help here and there from a trickster wizard named Wu (Francis Ng) who may or may not have something to do with Jack's current predicament. Theirs is a buddy trip, where encounters with a vile mountain spirit (Kara Wai) and a trio of wicked witches (think Macbeth) will foster the bond of brotherhood between them, such that Zhao will come to teach Jack the basics of kung fu and Jack will impress upon Zhao how the latter's life could be a happier place if he simply learnt to have fun from time to time.
It is no mystery whether Jack and Zhao will rescue Princess Sulin in time before her fateful marriage with Arun, or for that matter if Jack will eventually turn out to be the valiant 'Black Knight' that prophecy had foretold. Neither the climactic rescue on the morning of the forced union nor the ensuing one-on-one between Jack and Arun will raise your pulse you've probably seen bigger, better and more exciting ones from China/ Hong Kong period war epics like this year's 'Call of Heroes'. Indeed, what's more notable is how director Matthias Hoene balances comedy and drama to keep the tone jocular without being satirical and thoughtful without being melodramatic. That is really more difficult than it looks, considering its far- fetched premise and the tendency of such East-West mishmashes to end up reinforcing the worst cultural stereotypes of each. It is these same sensitivities that inform the somewhat multiple endings, which suffice to say are specifically crafted in order not to land up forcing Jack and Sulin to choose his or her world over the other.
In the end, the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously is essentially why this potential misfire turns out a pleasant surprise by being mildly winning. Like we said at the start, we weren't expecting much from this rip-off of 'The Forbidden Kingdom', which was itself diverting but disposable entertainment. The same can be said of 'The Warrior's Gate', but at least not Hoene or its French co-writers (Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen) or its East-West cast deny. Heck, even the typical over-the-top villain such as Arun gets in on the fun with a running joke about his over-enthusiastic but dull right-hand man Brutus who keeps executing the wrong person. The young lead cast of Shelton, Chao and Ni Ni also have good chemistry between them, such that we root for the Shelton and Chao as well as Shelton and Ni Ni as buddies and lovers respectively from two different eras. As long as you keep your expectations right, you won't end up disappointed, which is pretty much already an accomplishment for a movie like this that you're probably thinking will bomb.
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