The Warrior’s Way, the latest in a spate of so-called “kimchi westerns” meant to rejuvenate South Korea’s struggling film industry, falls woefully short of the high water mark set in 2008 by the terrific The Good, the Bad, the Weird. It’s exciting and captivating for about 15 minutes, but it soon becomes apparent that it has little to offer beyond a likable cast and occasionally inspired graphics.
Korean box-office darling Dong-gun Jang stars as Yang, an assassin whose only purpose in life is to kill every member of a rival clan (and to look really cool while doing it). When he can’t bring himself to murder an infant princess, he takes the child and heads to the American West, where he makes a fresh start in a derelict circus town called Lode. He hangs up his sword and turns his attention to more mundane affairs: re-opening the town laundry, planting a garden, and raising the young princess. It’s a given that his past will catch up with him in the form of clan leader Saddest Flute (Lung Ti), who has brought an army of flying ninjas to America in pursuit of Yang.
In keeping with the film’s “more is awesomer” sensibility, we get not one, but two villains. Besides Saddest Flute, there’s also the Colonel (Danny Huston), a sociopathic outlaw who can’t go more than three minutes without trying to rape somebody. The Colonel has a grudge against Lode’s retired carnies; the last time he and his band of psychos stopped by to rape everybody, he ended up with a melted face and a lifelong enemy in the form of Lynne (a criminally misused Kate Bosworth), a knife thrower whose family was gunned down by the Colonel after she fought him off with a cast-iron skillet full of sizzling grease.
Directed by Sngmoo Lee from his own screenplay, The Warrior’s Way never figures out what kind of a movie it wants to be. Art-directed to the nth degree but seemingly written on cocktail napkins between takes, it’s a jarring mess that bounces from slapstick comedy and moments of charming sweetness to scenes so distasteful they border on vile. In spite of its promise of cowboys vs. ninjas mayhem, the film’s best moments are in the build-up, as Yang forms relationships with his new neighbors and plays gruff nursemaid to his charge. The cast, which also includes Geoffrey Rush as a drunk with a dark past, is appealing, if largely wasted.
When the rubber finally hits the road for a quarter-hour of non-stop carnage, the result is disappointing. The action sequences are elaborate and over-the-top, but any visceral thrills the film might have delivered are lost in jittery camera work and non-stop post-production showboating. There’s so much digital sleight of hand that it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on, or to care. There are nice touches here and there—a shoot-out from a Ferris wheel, a nifty gore gag involving a wayward Gatling gun—but mostly it’s just the same old slow-motion trick shots that wore out their welcome a long time ago.
The Warrior’s Way might have worked at least on an aesthetic level if a definitive creative voice ever emerged from the chaos. Unfortunately, that never happens. The film has a unique and attractive look, mostly owing to the fact that it was shot on a New Zealand soundstage with gorgeous, ultra-stylized backgrounds dropped in later, but Lee never establishes a style of his own. Instead, he opts to borrow tricks from everyone from Federico Fellini and Sergio Leone to Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Terry Gilliam. His film meanders from lingering, self-consciously arty shots of dead clowns and a child blowing soapy bubbles over a garden of candy-colored flowers, to the sloppily staged, video game-style action sequences. And it’s worth mentioning that it’s not the cool, Red Dead Redemption brand of cinematic gameplay—it’s the herky-jerky, first-person-shooter stuff that professional film-stock waster Uwe Boll used in 2003’s miserable House of the Dead.
The East-meets-Western trick is nothing new; after all, many of our most beloved cowboy yarns are re-imaginings of classic samurai films. So if you’re in the market for an Asian oater, you have options. Skip The Warrior’s Way and try The Good, the Bad, the Weird, or even Charles Bronson and Japanese cinema icon Toshiro Mifune’s 1971 cowboys-and-samurai mashup Red Sun instead—less eye candy, but scads more fun.