The Warrior’s Way is a hyper-stylized, mash up of genres and styles, part American Western, part magical Eastern swordplay epic. The film plays with every cliché in the book, from the only thing being able to tame a wayward outlaw is a woman’s love, to the people of the little frontier town finally standing up to the evil bully that has been tormenting them, to the stoic, solitary hero, who strides into town. It’s a moderately entertaining, though ultimately empty exercise in visual pyrotechnics that, in the end, leaves you wondering why.
Yang (Korean star Jang Dong-gun), the protagonist of The Warrior’s Way, has trained his whole life to become the greatest swordsman ever in the history of mankind. When he finally bests the previous holder of this title, thus claiming his rightful place, he can also kill the final living member of a rival clan, and end a generations long feud. Here’s the problem, the last of his enemies is a baby, and for one reason or another, Yang can’t do the deed. His reluctance puts him at the top of own clan’s hit list, and after dodging a few attempts on his life, he takes the baby and heads to America and a new beginning.
Baby slung over his shoulder like a hobo’s bindle, Yang lands in the ramshackle western town of Lode, a desolate splotch on the American West, full of broken down circus performers. Yang opens a laundry, flirts with Lynne (Kate Bosworth), and eventually learns to love the simple, small town way of life, and that growing things and friendship are much more meaningful and rewarding than killing everything that crosses his path. For the first time in his life, Yang knows what it is to be happy.
You know where this story is going. Some bad guys turn up, Yang has to unsheathe his sword in order to protect his newfound way of life, and in doing so, he alerts his own preexisting enemies to his whereabouts, putting his makeshift family and friends in harm’s way.
What The Warrior’s Way really looks like is if Zach Snyder made a western. There is a serious 300 vibe here, by which I mean lots of slow motion action shots followed by spurting blood, and long, stretched out shots of digitally rendered skies and backgrounds.
These exaggerated visuals serve to heighten the absurd level of melodrama, where the life lessons learned are heavy-handed; the good guys are good and pure, and the villains are a sweaty, greasy kind of evil; and where a desert lesson in sword fighting doubles as a romantic dance of seduction. Everything about The Warrior’s Way, right down to Bosworth’s over-the-top hillbilly accent, and colloquialisms, like, “You sure know how to throw a dead cat into a party room”, is purposely over the top. 8-Ball (Tony Cox, Bad Santa), the de facto leader of Lode who has a penchant for grabbing and squeezing testicles, is the only one besides Yang who doesn’t have a silly accent. Even Oscar-Winner Geoffrey Rush, as an alcoholic former sharpshooter, is completely overblown.
What you can never figure out is why, what’s the point? Everything is cranked up to a keen degree, but for no apparent reason. As a result, the entire film winds up feeling like a stylistic experiment, nothing more.
There are some worthwhile elements to The Warrior’s Way, and there are a number of unique, striking images in the film. As a ship carrying a band of assassins sails across the ocean, blood from the murdered crew leaves a crimson trail in their wake; a skeletal tree, festooned with fireworks, serves as a desert Christmas tree, while tumbleweed-men stand in for their snowy counterparts; a gang of murderous bandits, filmed from a low-angle, gallop across the planes beneath a hyper-real blood-red sky; and the circus folk, including the bearded woman, a fire-breather, and clowns, prepare for their last, desperate stand.
I kept wanting to really like The Warrior’s Way. First-time director Sngmoo Lee has a lot of fun playing with genre conventions, but to little end. At times it feels like an ultraviolent cartoon. When you have cowboys fighting ninjas fighting a circus, it’s difficult to take seriously.
The bonus features on the DVD and Blu-ray don’t shed any further light on the situation. It took almost two years for The Warrior’s Way to be released, but there is no mention of that delay. A collection of more than a dozen deleted scenes sounds like a nice extra, but most of them are alternate versions of moments from the final film, unfinished scenes with a monolithic green-screen looming in the background, or things that were cut out for good reason. Coupled with the fact that these deleted bits are approximately one-quarter the size of the movie frame, tiny and hard to see, watching them is rather pointless.
A two-and-a-half-minute compilation of behind-the-scenes footage rounds out the special features. There are a few interesting topics broached—in my personal favorite bit, the guy who rigs the wires for the high-flying fight scenes shows you the rudiments of his trade—but due to the limited time, nothing is explored or given more than a passing mention. In the end, this package, movie and extras and all, leaves you wanting.