Yang has just slaughtered the last of his rival clan in a misty grey dawn to win the title of "World's Greatest Swordsman" only to find an infant left hidden in a travelling box. Currying no favor from his own clan The Sad Flutes for letting the enemy child survive, Yang is banished and hunted by his own Master in The Warrior's Way, a debut feature from South Korean writer-turned-director Sngmoo Lee exploring familiar Asian territories of historical melodrama, slapstick comedy, and hyper-stylized action ballets.
Acclaimed Korean superstar Jang Dong-gun (Tae Guk Ki: The Brotherhood of War) makes his English-language debut in the sort of limited role afforded most Asian idols courting Western fame (think Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li). A very handsome man and a much better dramatic actor than this film allows, Jang is burdened with fortune cookie dialogue and bland stoicism, only allowed to come alive in a few comic-action flourishes. He doesn't even have chemistry with the baby, a surefire lighthearted device if ever there was one (lifted directly from the classic film series Lone Wolf and Cub).
Yang and his infant charge wander into a decimated American West-styled town inhabited by circus performers surrounded by the decaying remains of their attractions. The pair is befriended by the lovely spitfire Lynne (Kate Bosworth), Eight-Ball the little person (Tony Cox of Bad Santa), and the town drunk Ron (the increasingly Vincent Price-like Geoffrey Rush). Lynne is a cauldron of revenge, plotting against the malevolent "Colonel" (Danny Huston) whom she permanently scalded and scarred after witnessing her parents dropped by his gun, creating his facial mementos to fend off his advances. "Colonel" is making his way back to town to terrorize and seek out the now-adult Lynne as Yang arrives and assumes the disguise of a laundryman.
Of course, before all this, Yang and Lynne couple in a mystical romance and he must teach her how to become an expert blind knife-thrower. Bosworth brings plenty of spunky determination to her role, but doesn't connect beyond a certain sympathy we might have for her situation. Even worse, the ill-conceived relationship between Lynne and Yang (get it!) is moony and half-hearted with the gorgeous matte paintings and painterly CG backgrounds doing most of the work to convince us of their hasty infatuation. The art direction is especially superb in the use of vibrant colors and the sort of surrealistic artificiality employed by classic 1940s MGM musicals. The backdrops glows, the camera swoons, and the "lovers" simply play along.
But wait, isn't this a martial arts action flick? The movie forgets that for a while before finally getting into gear when "Colonel" and his army of steampunk-chic bandits storm into town. Huston relishes his role as the leather-masked Phantom of the fable seething with leering perversion and cold-blooded sadism. His vile nature elicits an intimate danger and tiny, erotic sparks in scenes with Bosworth. A botched boudoir assassination of "Colonel" finds Lynne in imminent peril so Yang finally springs into action and reveals his astounding fighting skills. But, Jang Dong-gun is no professional kung-fu expert and the sword fighting sequences rely heavily on slow motion wire work and Matrix-style bullet-time fakery, rendering the combat heavy-handed and lacking the awe or comic audacity of a Jet Li or Jackie Chan.
Following Western conventions, the town prepares for the final siege, Ron the drunk finds his legs as an expert marksman, and the sideshow acts draw from their particular talents to take on the evil horde. When the final attack begins, Sngmoo Lee finally achieves some inspiring moments of cartoonish anarchy, but nothing approaching similar triumphs by Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle), John Carpenter (Big Trouble in Little China), and Korea's own Ji-woon Kim (The Good, the Bad, and the Weird). Coming from historical melodrama, Lee's focus is not on the elements which would appeal most to the Asian action genre's devotees. Nothing about his action staging is violent or unhinged enough to excite or impress, always seeming to borrow the best bits from films which did it with more flair and a true understanding of the joys of B-movie excess.
At times, Yang is nearly forgotten as the center of his own tale, with a cursory background indicating that he was trained to be ruthless (including being forced to kill his adorable pet dog) but harbored an unexplained sentimental streak. With no logical reason for this assassin to suddenly find his humanistic side, abandoning the warrior's code and his clan (the cursory background the story gives him provides no clues), he remains a flat, uninteresting character. Yang's betrayed Master and his band of flying ninjas are more sinister adversaries than "Colonel" and his men, but are given little screen time and are roundly dispatched in geysers of Chinese blood whenever they mount an attack. These problems along with an uneasy blending of too many genres, in its attempts to be everything to everyone, never allows The Warrior's Way to find a distinctive voice amidst all of its chosen genre's worn clichés.
Rating: TWO BONES
Reviewed by Gregory Fichter
Release Date: December 3rd, 2010
Starring: Jang Dong-gun, Kate Bosworth, Danny Huston, Geoffrey Rush, Tony Cox, and Lung Ti
Director: Sngmoo Lee
Writer: Sngmoo Lee