Thursday 28 March 2013
Writers: Ross Boyask, Cecily Fay
Producers: Ross Boyask, Cecily Fay
Cast: Cecily Fay, Joelle Simpson and (bizarrely) the guy who made Tweenies
Year of release: 2013
Reviewed from: online screener
Warrioress (I’m not convinced that’s a real word) is a low-budget British fantasy martial arts epic from the director of action thrillers Ten Dead Men and Left for Dead. I will admit to not having high hopes based on the trailer and indeed for the first half an hour or so I was more entertained by its unintentional comic value than anything else. But gradually it won me over and there can be little doubt that it improves considerably in the second half.
Petite firebrand Cecily Fay stars as Boudiccu who is chosen to travel from her village with two mystical, ancient swords and face an opponent from another village. In the trials to select the village champion she is the only woman against eight or nine generally fairly beefy blokes including her boyfriend Finnvarah (Christian Howard). The prophecy, apparently, is that once in a generation champions from these two villages will meet and battle it out. If, by sundown, both champions are still alive then it will be deemed that they are equal warriors and the prophecy will be fulfilled. And, presumably, everyone will live happily ever after, or something.
What lets the film down overall, but especially the earlier stuff, is a frankly terrible script by Fay and director Ross Boyask full of lumpen, pedestrian dialogue. It’s all prosaic statements of fact. Character A tells character B something about one or other of the pair - “I am this” or “You are that” - or explains something about the tribe or the village or the prophecy which the other person already knows. There’s no subtext. Nothing is implicit. I listened carefully for any sign of multiple layers of meaning, and found none. There’s no delight in the dialogue, no character interplay, the words don’t dance around each other the way that they should. Not a single line to make me think “I wish I’d written that sentence.” On the plus side, at least there are no cod-medieval aphorisms. No thee or thou. ‘Yes it is’ not ‘that it be’ - to quote Edmund Blackadder.
One of the joys of good dialogue is stuff that means two things at the same time. If a character says, for example, “It’s my birthday” the audience really doesn’t mind whether that means “I’m gonna kick your arse” or “I’m gonna refrain from giving you the arse-kicking you obviously deserve” or, frankly, anything that’s not to do with birthdays. But if a character says “It’s my birthday” just to let us, the audience know that it’s their birthday, that’s lumpen and stodgy. No-one in Warrioress (still don’t think that’s a word) says “It’s my birthday”, I offer that merely as a hypothetical example. Although lots of people do get their arses kicked.
Which is where the film scores. The fight scenes are mostly very impressive indeed (ironically the weakest is the one in the prologue, before we have grown to care about - or indeed, met - any characters). The choreography (by Fay) is top-notch and the editing (by Boyask) is fantastic. What really sells them though is the sincerity. Fay, and other actors, put their all into these scraps and look like they not only want to win, they want everyone else to die. There’s aggression here. Frankly, there’s savagery. And it’s what a story like this needs, rather than just people striking martial arts poses. I also really appreciated that this isn’t just a lame kick-boxing movie. There is a certain amount of martial arts leg-work but there’s a lot more, including some great use of weapons: daggers, bows, staffs - even a Klingon bat’leth! I really, really loved some of the sword fights which are clearly influenced by Japanese samurai movies. A few swift moves and then one character topples over, gushing blood. Great stuff. What is more, Boudiccu has no qualms about jabbing a knife or sword into any wounded opponent lying helpless on the ground. The lives of men and women in this world are nasty, brutish and short.
This is all, I guess, as it should be, in that most people who watch this film will do so for the action sequences, not for the plot (which is pretty simplistic and mostly fairly obvious) or the characterisation (which is pretty sparse) and certainly not for the dialogue. However good action direction and a good script are not mutually exclusive; the one does not preclude the other. Nevertheless, the second half of the film is better than the first because it contains a lot more fightin’ and a lot less gabbin’. Also, without naming names, some of the actors in the early scenes are just awful. It’s clear that some of the cast are actually pretty good actors but even they can’t do anything with the lines they’re given, so the bad actors stand no chance.
Here is a brief scene (between three people) picked at random by jabbing a pin into the screener. I think it ably demonstrates the problem. (I've spoiler protected the next section but, to be honest, it doesn't give away any significant plot points.)
“I have long feared these tombs, yet now I see them with my own eyes I think they are tombs not because our ancestors were buried here but because they died here.”
“It is said they had weapons that could shoot fire over great distances.”
“If they were anything like arrows, these narrow slits would be very useful.”
“Yes, they have the design of of function and battle, not the reverence that a tomb should have.”
“Rumour has it the Falonex have fearsome weapons, that no-one can defend against them.”
“Then these tombs would make a good start. They have stood here for so many generations and time has barely touched them. They could be used to develop a defence against the Falonex.”
“But our people have feared such places for so long.”
“We have seen the tombs now. We know they are not to be feared. When we return, we will tell our people to come here. They will believe us.”
“It could be too late.”
You can see how it’s all just statements: I have ... I think ... it is said ... they would ... they have ... rumour has it ... these would ... they have ... time has ... they could ... our people have ... we have ... we know ... we will ... they will... Where's the dance? More to the point, why are all three characters having the same response to these ‘tombs’? Where’s the character conflict? Let’s try that again, only this time let’s have one person afraid of the tombs and their reputation, one person intrigued by something way beyond these people’s technology and one person considering practical uses:
“We should not be here. It is wrong in so many ways. Let’s go now.”
“It is just stone.”
“It is not just stone. This has been made. Made by gods or demons but not by the hand of man.”
“It was made by our ancestors.”
“Then our ancestors can keep it. Now can we please go?”
“Something is wrong here...”
“I keep saying.”
“No, not spiritually wrong - wrong with the design. How is this a tomb? I think... I think this is a defensive structure. It’s not a tomb at all. This is a small castle.”
“From the old wars?”
“The old wars are a legend.”
“My grandmother told me about the old wars. She was told by her grandmother.”
“My grandmother told me that my face would stick like that if the wind changed. Grandmothers are not to be believed.”
“Hush now. Look around you. This has clearly been designed to defend against attackers. Who cares if it was made by gods or grandmothers? It has been built for defence and we can use it for defence.”
“Against the Falonex? They have weapons beyond anything we can produce.”
“Then we need defences beyond anything we can produce. We have neglected these structures because of foolish legends when they could be our salvation. As soon as we get back to the village, I am calling a meeting.”
“Well then, let’s hope we get to there before the Falonex do or none of this will matter. Now, are we done?”
That’s a first draft. I’m not saying it’s great. I’m just saying it’s better, and it’s not difficult to be better, and it’s a shame that the dialogue and characterisation didn’t receive the care and attention that went into the fights.
Although nominally a fantasy film, there is nothing magical or supernatural or fantastique on show here so don’t expect any wizards or elves or dragons or whatnot. Warrioress (still having my doubts) is set in a non-specific quasi-medieval world but there are plenty of anachronistic elements - a guitar, a five-bar gate and buttons on clothes spring to mind - which betray the film’s low budget. Some of these can however be justified by the far from surprising revelation that we are actually in the future and this is some sort of post-apocalyptic scenario. Much of the film is based around old, concrete Nazi gun emplacements in Guernsey which are brilliantly used locations, although I didn’t for one moment buy the scene where Boudiccu and friends find an old chest with a book, a rusting Luger and a surprisingly good condition pocket telescope.
Also on a Nazi theme, there is an enemy tribe called the Falonex whose flag has a capital F that couldn’t look more like a swastika if it tried. There is some sort of steampunk thing going on with them although this seems to be more of a set-up for a potential sequel. As it stands the Falonex themselves don’t seem to do much apart from occasionally send in some helmeted goons to be beaten up. But there are also bad guys called Raiders and we are told that the Falonex are not yet in the area, even though some of them plainly are (one of the Falonex warriors is martial arts champ Zara Phythian).
There are some nicely played scenes between the Falonex Emperor (Will Brenton - writer/producer/director of Tweenies, no honestly) and a messenger with repeated bad news (Simon Feilder, who was Nobby in Jim Jam and Sunny) which emphasise another way in which the second half of the film beats the first 45 minutes. Actually two ways. One is that villains are always more interesting than good guys. They have more character and clear goals. Plus there is real tension in watching our heroine and her allies struggling for their lives against people who want to kill them, rather than a slightly lame knock-out competition in the middle of a village.
The other improvement is a touch of humour. For the first part of the film everything was being taken so seriously. And you can’t do that when you’re dressed up like a bunch of live-action role-players running around with pretend swords. There is a nicely played scene in a tavern (you always have a tavern scene in these films - it’s a tradition or an old charter or something) with John Rackham (Bloodmyth) as one of two drunken lechers. And in a later scene two comic relief losers who think their luck is in when they find a necklace on a grave are given a sound kicking and sent on their way but not before displaying more characterisation than most of the other characters put together.
One of the few main characters with any depth is the warrioress (now I’m using it - I’ve got to look this up) who sends these two rogues packing. Joelle Simpson plays White Arrow, a wandering slab of bow-for-hire muscle who teams up with Boudiccu, providing a fine contrast in personality and fighting styles as well as physical appearance. Her character falls apart a bit right at the end, as does the film as a whole, but most of the time while she was on screen I was happy. And when Boudiccu and White Arrow lay into a whole bunch of bad guys, fighting to rescue White Arrow’s sister and some others from her village, the film really comes to life. If it could have been that good all the way through, it would have been awesome.
One reason I love the fight scenes is because characters (good and bad) get hurt. These aren’t superwomen and they are facing neither supermen nor faceless goons (well, some of them are faceless goons). Boudiccu and White Arrow get battered and beaten but win by superior fighting skills. The knocked-about concrete locations help enormously too because they look used, they look lived in. Whereas Boudiccu’s village and all its inhabitants look desperately clean. Not one character in the early scenes has a hint of shit about them. Or their clothes. Or their hair. They look like tour guides in some medieval recreation theme park. The men are all clean-shaven, the women all have mascara and lippy. The village is tidy. There’s no grunge. But people who live in little wooden huts live grungy lives. They don’t bathe, they don’t shave. And I know the budget’s low, but how much would it have cost to borrow a couple of ducks or chickens to run around the place?
I ended up liking Warrioress (my spellchecker says no) despite myself. The pros outweigh the cons. I will give special props for one particular character death which I don’t want to describe but when you see it you’ll know which one and why I was impressed: it’s an audacious move and something rarely seen in movies of any budget size.
Although there are quite a few titles on her CV, Cecily Fay hasn’t really got too many she can actually be genuinely proud of. She did stunts in Prometheus (which was big budget and shit), costume work in the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie (medium budget and shit), an unnamed role in Intergalactic Combat (low budget and unbelievably shit) and a named role in an episode of sub-On the Buses sci-fi ‘comedy’ embarrassment Starhyke. She was also in Boyask’s earlier films (as were many other cast and crew) plus UK-shot Asylum silliness Dragon Crusaders, and she did stunts for BHR entry A Lonely Place to Die. Oh, and she and Joelle Simpson both appeared in dramatised scenes in a Lucy Lawless-narrated Discovery Channel documentary called Gladiatrix (oh come on, that one’s definitely not a real word).
Simpson (no relation) has fewer credits but as two of those are 28 Days Later and Doghouse, her average credibility is higher I feel. Christian Howard, who doesn’t have much to do except make out with Fay, was in Dominic Burns’ aliens-invade-Derby epic UFO as well as Dragon Crusaders and he also played Ken in a Street Fighter fan film.
Elsewhere in the cast are Keith Eyles (The Kingdom of Shadows, Bloodmyth, The Shadow of Bigfoot), Penni Tovey (Zingzillas), Aidan Cook (Horrid Henry), Josh Elwell (Zingzillas again) and several experienced stunt performers who have been in Bonds and Harry Potters and, well, pretty much everything. Rounding out the surprisingly high number of pre-school show stars is CBeebies legend Sarah-Jane Honeywell (also in The Eschatrilogy) although I must admit that I didn’t spot her on screen.
On the technical side, the cinematography is shared between Boyask and Darren Berry (Jenny Ringo and the Monkey’s Paw). Stefan Ashdown (The Thompsons) is credited with special effects and Starhyke creator Andrew Dymond provided the visual effects (but not the jokes, fortunately). Fay herself provided the atmospheric music which never becomes obtrusive or clicheed.
But beyond all that, beyond the great action sequences and the awful dialogue and the imaginative use of World War II bunkers and the absence of farmyard fowl, one surprising thing stands out about Warrioress (okay, I’ll let it go) when one takes a step back and considers the movie as a whole. Despite being a film which is primarily about fit women fighting each other (nearly forgot to name-check scary goth Diana J Sigston who is terrific as one of the Falonex killers), despite the fact that Cecily Fay spends much of the film wearing a little metal bra that looks like one of Princess Leia’s cast-offs, despite the occasional unavoidable crotch-shot, despite Boudiccu’s dangly ear-rings which no-one in their right mind would wear during a fight, indeed despite introducing us to Boudiccu when she is starkers, showering under a convenient waterfall - despite all this, the film does not objectify women. It would have been really, really easy for this to be some salacious T&A fest where the crotch shots, the metal bra and the women’s bodies were the main selling point, but they’re not. And for that, we should applaud Boyask and Fay. This is girl power without descending into girlie power.
In summary, Warrioress (alright already) is not a brilliant film but it’s also far from terrible. It is ambitious, interesting and worth 90 minutes of your time. Frankly, in the short list of low-budget British fantasy movies this is probably the best there has ever been, maybe the best we’ll ever get. Don’t watch this expecting Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones, or Xena, or anything with a budget. In absolute terms, this is closer to hokey 1980s Italian schlock like Throne of Fire or Ator the Fighting Eagle, but with better fights, fewer cheesy special effects and less dubbing. Take those low expectations in with you and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
The two mystical swords, by the way, though played up several times as significant, have no relevance to the plot whatsoever that I can see.
MJS rating: B-