Every now and then, audiences will come across a movie that’s unbelievably stupid yet — in spite of itself — actually manages to develop and maintain an off-kilter version of cleverness and originality. The Warrior’s Way, a chow mein western from first time director Sngmoo Lee, is not that movie.
Instead, The Warrior’s Way is a movie that will leave most of its audience grumbling as they leave the theater — whining about underdeveloped characters, an emphasis on style over substance, hokey plot contrivances or any other number of perfectly reasonable complaints.
The Warrior’s Way is not a good film. It is, however, a great baby step for genre film novices. Filled with all the complexity of a “too clever for its own good” video game, The Warrior’s Way is the perfect introduction to the world of Asian cinema, genre mash-ups and the slightly weirder films that exist in the fringes of your local video store. The movie is a relatively inoffensive, watered down version of other, better movies — in other words, it’s the gateway drug that will hopefully lead some nearly brain-dead teeny bopper on the bread crumb-lined path towards the good stuff such as films by Kim Ji-woon, Nacho Vigalondo and Stuart Gordon.
In The Warrior’s Way, South Korean actor Jang Dong-gun (yes, I realize that the fact the film’s star is Korean makes my earlier chow mein joke racist — but so what?) stars as Yang, a swordsman as deadly as he is few of words. Finding himself unable to kill the innocent child that happens to be the last remaining survivor of his clan’s rival ninja posse, Yang grabs the baby and takes to the road — attempting to stay as far off the grid as he can.
Unfortunately, Yang’s clan apparently doesn’t have much to do since their rivals have been almost completely stricken off the face of the planet. Instead of taking on a new hobby such as knitting or synchronized swimming, the ninjas follow Yang halfway across the world — to the wide-open dusty planes of the Wild West.
There, Yang has made a new life for himself as a laundryman in a ghost town full of retired carnival folk. Unfortunately, magical ninjas (and really, are there any other kind?) aren’t the only problem Yang has to deal with. The town he has decided to make his new home is also targeted by a gang of corrupt cowboys as mean as they are ugly.
Led by Danny Huston, who is quickly becoming the go-to actor to play the heavy when John Malkovich and Mark Strong aren’t picking up their phones — the gang of outlaws look like they shop at the S&M booth at their local rodeo — their outfits a mixture of leather gimp masks and plenty of buckles and straps. Unfortunately, the film’s bad guys spent all their money on their fancy sadomasochism gear and they didn’t have enough to buy the aura of actual threat. Instead, like the faceless and personality-free ninjas, the western villains are little more than video game henchmen — disposable casualties to help increase the film’s bloody body count. Despite having some cool death scenes among them, the film’s cavalcade of criminals has little gravitas or threat.
Danny Huston tries his best to add something to the film. What that something was is up for debate. With half his faced covered by a leather mask that looks like something out of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Danny Huston is left relying on his voice and body movements to carry the performance. While he has the physical posture of a cartoon super villain down pat, Huston needs to put in a bit more work into his vocal performance. Even as he threatens clowns and mows down ninjas, one can’t help but feel Huston is doing a John Lithgow impersonation throughout the film.
Also a part of the cast is Kate Bosworth — giving a fiery, if unfocused, performance as a knife thrower with a grudge against Huston’s character. The requisite love interest, Bosworth is given plenty of screen time and does her best to keep the audience’s attention throughout. But in a movie where ninjas and cowboys are fighting, Bosworth’s character is given the unfortunate task of keeping audience’s attention while the action’s taking a potty break. Her lack of chemistry with film star Dong-gun only helps to dig the movie’s grave.
Film legend Geoffrey Rush doesn’t exactly help either — cast in a largely disposable role as the local drunk. At first glance, Rush, who also serves as narrator, is given something resembling a character arc but really it seems that he is channeling his Pirates of the Caribbean co-star Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow character — except as an elderly alcoholic wobbling on his feet and light in his loafers but lacking the witty script to back him up. Used for comic relief or emotional exposition, Rush’s character could have been eaten by a cougar in the opening ten minutes and nobody would have missed his absence.
The film’s real star, though, is its highly stylized look. Unfortunately, when talking stars, the film’s “look” is the equivalent of a soap opera actor.
Through the use of heavy computer tinkering, way too much CGI blood and some liberal use of color correction, the film is given a shiny look — something that seems a bit inappropriate considering the genres swirled about in the movie. Despite a slightly clever concept, the movie’s visual palate never quite pushes the boundaries. It looks like every other mid-budget action movie to come along since directors started to list Zack Snyder and post-Once Upon a Time in Mexico Robert Rodriguez as an influence.
The movie seems to be going out of its way to be trick people into thinking its based on a comic book or video game — considering how stylized its action is. Really, though, the movie could have rested on its narrative concept and the final, chaotic battle scene and achieved just as much success as it did as did — without all the hassle of making the movie look like something Robert Zemeckis pooped out in his Chinese food-fueled sleep.
When it comes to trying to achieve a notable visual look, the movie ends up smelling like a bland, buttery version of Bunraku, another western-Asian hybrid set to be released this year.
The Warrior’s Way is not a movie recommended to those with an extensive knowledge of genre film and its finer points. For movie fans just dipping their toes into the deep end of the off-beat and weird and away from the turgid waters where sequels and Adam Sandler movies float like turds, The Warrior’s Way could offer a small bite of the strange and gooey candy that is genre film.
Just enough to get geeks-in-training excited to switch from diapers to pull-ups, The Warrior’s Way is a baby step in the direction of good film. For film enthusiasts, though, I just wouldn’t recommend crawl back towards the womb for this particular movie.
Director: Sngmoo Lee Notable Cast: Dong-gun Jang, Kate Bosworth, Geoffrey Rush, Danny Huston and Tony Cox Writer(s): Sngmoo Lee
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.