By Preston Wilder
China is the new Eldorado, and likely to remain so unless Mr. Trump starts a trade war (and even if he does). The country, with its vast multiplex boom, is single-handedly making even Hollywood duds profitable, Warcraft being the notable example – and where Hollywood goes, Luc Besson is bound to follow. Besson is a grand purveyor of cinematic cheese in the 80s tradition of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, producing action flicks from his Paris studios which are often fleeter and goofier than their Hollywood equivalents – and, just as Golan-Globus pounced on the latest moneymaking wheeze, from breakdance to lambada, Besson has his eyes set on China. Enter Warrior’s Gate, a dopey teen adventure with just enough Sino-flavour – and even a few lines of Mandarin – to claim a toehold in this lucrative new market.
Actually, Besson has it wrong. Even Chinese teens (who I assume are less jaded than the Western variety) will surely giggle at this terminally lame movie, in which high-school gamer Jack (Uriah Shelton) gets transported to mediaeval China and some vague kerfuffle about protecting a princess (Ni Ni). Its real target audience are middle-aged Westerners who’ll watch disbelievingly, feeling like they’ve stumbled on a parallel dimension where the 80s never ended. Even young Shelton seems to have been cast specifically for his resemblance to Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid.
The film – which falls squarely in the guilty pleasure/so-bad-it’s-good camp – starts with our hero being accosted (in his bedroom) by a Chinese warrior who intones “Jack Bronson, I need your help!” and culminates in a fight scene where the damsel in distress looks on uselessly as her man defeats the villain. (Isn’t that a bit sexist? To quote 80s icon Nigel Tufnel: “What’s wrong with being sexy?”.) In between are dodgy effects – a witch flaps unconvincingly at the CGI flames engulfing her – action scenes ranging from lively to amateur-hour, and enough silly comedy to make the whole thing surprisingly sweet, despite/because of its lameness.
Besson’s trump card (he also co-wrote the script) has always been humour, and it’s hard to get angry at Warrior’s Gate when it takes itself so un-seriously. Dave Bautista is the fearsome chief baddie, ‘Arun the Cruel’, marshalling his troops for the final onslaught; our first army goes here and our second army goes there, he instructs a minion. “What about our third army?” asks the minion. “We have a third army? [pause, then shrug] Just let them rob and pillage.” There are weird non sequiturs – Why are you still wearing that outfit? Jack is asked after a battle; “I like it,” he replies – a wacky wizard, a repeated vaudeville bit about killing the wrong person, a scene where Jack makes the princess peanut-butter sandwiches (later, they go to the mall), and Shelton demonstrating the look of poleaxed consternation on a teenage boy’s face when a girl comes into his room. Is it dumb? Certainly. Is it just a bunch of outdated junk? “I prefer ‘vintage’.”
That line – spoken in reference to a VCR – actually comes from Rings, an inept reboot of the Japanese-born horror franchise about the video (initially a tape, now an .mov file) which, once watched, kills the watcher in seven days. Not ‘within’ seven days, though the new film cheats by suggesting something like that – Death seems to stalk our heroine Julia (Matilda Lutz) from Day 1 – then again it doesn’t really matter since the seven-days countdown quickly gets forgotten. Instead the film deflates into simple mystery, Julia seeking to uncover the secret life of Samara (the malevolent little-girl ghost behind the deaths). She asks too many questions, and finds herself being chased through a house by a bad man – at which point it’s clear that we’ve strayed a long way from the eerie horror of Ring.
It’s a shame, because Rings is promising for a while – especially the notion of a college prof who’s turned the deadly video-watching into an organised system, with names and seven-day countdowns: the industrialisation of Samara, much like Rings itself. The film goes wrong when it starts to make the horror personal (Julia finds an inscription reading ‘She Will Find You, Julia’), losing precisely the sense of faceless, impersonal doom – a curse passed from victim to victim, like a macabre game of tag – that made this franchise so chilling. It gets dull, then increasingly ham-fisted, the low-point being perhaps the (hilarious) bit where we discover that the ghost came very close to being christened ‘Sally’ or ‘Stacy’, before those names were crossed out in favour of the scarier ‘Samara’. Bottom line? Rings is needless, pointless and inane – though in fact the real bottom line is something else altogether, as it is for most Hollywood films these days: Will it play in Beijing?
WARRIOR’S GATE **
DIRECTED BY Matthias Hoene
STARRING Uriah Shelton, Mark Chao, Ni Ni
France/China 2016 108 mins