Writer-director Sngmoo Lee’s debut The Warrior’s Way is a visually creative, quite entertaining genre mash-up: containing elements of Eastern folk tales, samurai pictures, fantasy, Westerns, and Tod Browning’s Freaks (except not as creepy, because nothing is), The Warrior’s Way is just weird enough to compel interest, but Lee’s script is that slightest bit too dumb for the picture to truly succeed.
This not to say that it’s not fun. It’s a lot of fun. Protagonist Yang (South Korean star Jang Dong Gun) is introduced, via an eccentric narrator with a mildly atrocious Western accent (whom we later discover is Geoffrey Rush), as a young man who has endeavored his entire life to become the greatest swordsman in the world. After he nearly effortlessly cuts the current greatest swordsman in the world in half, Yang assumes the title. But where to go from here?
Yang, in order to succeed in wiping his clan, The Sad Flutes’, rivals out of existence, must kill a baby. However, because he’s the good guy, he doesn’t. But, because this means his clan will be seeking violent retribution for his treachery, Yang does the logical thing: with baby in tow, he makes his way to the old west town of Lode, “the Paris of the West,” a town populated entirely by circus sideshow performers, one old drunk guy (Geoffrey Rush), and a spunky young girl (Kate Bosworth) hell-bent on revenge against the marauding pedophile (Danny Huston) who murdered her family and left her for dead.
It transpires that Yang’s friend Smiley, whom he has come to see, has died, so Yang and Kate Bosworth assume control of Smiley’s laundry business. In short order, the community stops saying racist things about Yang and accepts him as a member of the community. Sparks fly between Yang and Kate Bosworth. Danny Huston and his toothless minions loom on the horizon. And Yang’s past is following him from East to West....
The ultimate resolution of all this business goes pretty much as you’d expect, in terms of events. The non-action parts of the story drag occasionally, though Sngmoo Lee has a terrific visual sense, creating lovely images with digital composites, lighting, and effects, which enliven even the slowest scenes. The action, though, is massive cool, like live-action comic book ballet. There’s a sequence toward the end when Yang cuts the lights so that he can dismember machine-gun toting villains with his swords, where the only light is provided by the machine gun, creating a strobe effect as Yang removes heads and arms from bodies, concluding with a decisive blow dealt to the machine gunner. Very cool stuff, and definitely deserving of the picture’s R rating.
The performances, hardly the picture’s focus, range from implacably taciturn (Jang Dong Gun, calling to mind a Korean Alain Delon), to wildly eccentric (Geoffrey Rush’s drunk/sharpshooter With A Past), to surprisingly good (Kate Bosworth actually isn’t that bad, which is a real step up for her), to jawdropping, epochal awesomeness: Yang’s antagonist from Back Home is played by Hong Kong wuxia god Ti Lung, who is literally worth the entire price of admission all by himself. This does, of course, raise the question of exactly where in Asia the Sad Flutes are from, since the good guy’s Korean and the bad guy’s Chinese but they’re in the same gang of swordsmen. Maybe they’re so cool they’ve conquered all of Asia. Like just about everything else in this picture, though, it’s best not to ask too many questions.
While the end of The Warrior’s Way leaves room open for a sequel, one wonders whether one will be forthcoming, or even whether one should. This movie’s been sitting on the shelf awaiting release for almost two years, which is a little puzzling. The script is not good, but it’s more agreeably goofy than a total train wreck. Hopefully it leads to more American roles for Jang Dong Gun, because he’s more than up to the task of being an action star, but not in The Warrior’s Way II: The Sad Flutes Take The OK Corral, because that would be on the other side of the “acceptably stupid” line.