The Warrior’s Way combines the brutal violence of a martial arts saga, the nostalgic lure of an old west drama, and the visual appeal of a living comic book. And yet, in trying to be all those things, it ends up being none of them; what was supposed to be an edgy East-meets-West fusion is in fact an unexplainable, unpleasant mishmash of genres that really don’t belong together. It’s an oddity, an otherworldly import that never aims to be funny but somehow can get you laughing at the drop of a hat. It’s above all a deep mystery, not only begging the question of how it was conceived, but also of who actually believed it would work. I don’t pretend to be the end all when it comes to martial arts films or even westerns, but I think I’ve seen enough of each to know that combining them isn’t always a good idea.
It might have helped had first-time writer/director Sngmoo Lee known which story he wanted to tell. There are essentially two plotlines running through the film, and neither has a firm grasp on itself. The central character is Yang (Jang Dong-gun), a warrior from an Asian land of an unspecific location and era. He was raised to be a ruthless, cunning assassin – a man with lightning-quick reflexes and an inhuman ability to stay focused. His sole mission was to murder every single member of a warring clan. When he finds he’s unable to murder the last of his enemies – a baby girl – he takes her and flees, for he knows that disobeying his clan is an automatic death sentence. His destination: America, where he hopes to reunite with an old friend, who made a name for himself as a launderer in the desert community of Lode, which bills itself as the Paris of the West.
Yang’s friend has long since died. Lode is a lifeless, withering hulk of a one-horse town that bears absolutely no resemblance to Paris. Stranded there is a travelling circus; it has begun erecting a gigantic Ferris wheel, one that looms overhead and looks like a rusting skeleton. The proprietor is a miniature showman named 8-Ball (Tony Cox). His troupe is a reliable motley crew of freakish stereotypes, the most prominent being a bearded lady. The rest of the residents are the most buffoonish western caricatures of any recent film I’ve seen. There’s Ron, the town drunk (Geoffrey Rush), who also happens to be an expert marksman. There’s also Lynne (Kate Bosworth), a knife-thrower who knew Yang’s friend and has even learned a thing or two from him.
And this is where the second plotline comes into play. As a girl, Lynne miraculously survived an attack by a group of men led by The Colonel (Danny Houston), whose heartless exploits go no further than raping and murdering women with good teeth. His encounter left his physically scarred, and now he has returned to Lode wearing a mask that makes him look like a cowboy retrofit of the Phantom of the Opera. Lynne wants her revenge. The Colonel wants to make trouble. Inevitably, this will culminate in a climactic battle, one that pits dozens of heavily armed men against a coffin full of guns, a Ferris wheel rigged with dynamite, and a sword-toting Asian assassin.
Think this is the end of the movie? Not so fast. As Yang and the residents of Lode battle The Colonel and his posse, a legion of ninjas descend on the town and wreak their own special brand of havoc. It seems Yang’s past has caught up with him, although I’ll be damned if I knew how they managed to find him – I mean besides their ability to listen to the “weeping” of his sword. But that isn’t quite the point I’m trying to make. All I want to know is, which of these battles is the more important one of the story? Who are we supposed to root for? If it’s Yang, then why is that, after claiming the baby as his own, she’s treated as nothing other than an object for audiences to laugh at and find cute? If it’s Lynne, then why is her story wrapped up before we have the chance to invest in it? This is what I mean about not knowing which story is being told; The film has two plots fighting for the same screen time.
There are other problems. Ron serves as the film’s narrator, and while he says all the expected things, he’s hardly a reliable character given how much time he spends drinking. There’s also a painfully contrived romance between Yang and Lynne that isn’t anything close to believable, probably because Don-gun and Bosworth have absolutely no chemistry together. How can they when Yang is depicted as the proverbial lonesome warrior, loved by no one and unable to give love in return? There’s a moment in which Ron tells us that, during his time in Lode, Yang learned to love the simple life, especially in regard to growing and tending flowers; we would not have known this without a voiceover narration, for Yang rarely speaks and his face reveals no emotion at all. The only thing I got from The Warrior’s Way was the knowledge that I shouldn’t believe anything a drunk says.
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