The Warrior's Way, according to the narrator, is "the story of a sad flute, a laughing baby, and a weeping sword." All of that is true, but the narrator has buried the lead! The Warrior's Way is also the story of an Asian swordsman hiding in the Old West, where he helps the locals battle a badly scarred villain and a team of ninja assassins. It's Seven Samurai meets Deadwood! It's Kurosawa meets Leone, filtered through a dozen Tarantino imitators!
It's also not nearly as fun as a movie with this premise ought to be. Written and directed by Sngmoo Lee, an instructor at New York Film School, Warrior's Way uses 300-style technology to produce handsome visuals and impossibly colorful sets. The first 20 minutes, with its whimsical backstory narration and unselfconscious oddness, reminded me of TV's dear departed Pushing Daisies. Yet the film is hollow and soulless, its energy sapped by its dull characters and completely derivative screenplay.
The year is 1880-ish. Our hero, Yang (Dong-gun Jang), is a master swordsman from an unspecified Asian country who refuses to kill the last remaining member of the rival clan on the grounds that the last remaining member of the rival clan is a newborn baby. Instead, he takes the baby and flees to the West (though he gets there by traveling eastward), arriving in a dusty California settlement called Lode. Yang opens a laundry service and tells no one of his sword-wielding past.
Lode is home to a circus troupe led by Eight-Ball (Tony Cox), a midget with an "8" painted on his head. There's also a town drunk (Geoffrey Rush) who used to be a marksman. And Lynne (Kate Bosworth) is a rootin'-tootin', steel-hearted gal bent on revenge against the dastardly Colonel (Danny Huston), who was responsible for the death of her family some years ago. The Colonel's hideous disfigurement, hidden by a mask, is courtesy of his previous run-in with Lynne.
Meanwhile, Yang's old crew is searching the world to find him and punish him for his betrayal. For this reason, Yang cannot unsheathe his sword, as doing so will cause the sword to weep audibly (with the souls of everyone it has slain), which will serve as a homing device for his former compatriots. You know how it is.
The film's greatest surprise is that it is not based on a graphic novel. The film's second-greatest surprise is that, for as cheap and daffy as it sounds, it's often beautiful to look at. Lee takes his visuals seriously, composing shots and staging action like someone who has taught such things to film students for several years.
But apart from the drunk and the villain -- thanks, Rush and Huston! -- none of the characters is remotely interesting, so the action never means anything. Yang is a blank page; Lynne is page with a lot of cliches written on it. 'Tis a pity, because the film's details suggest potential for a lively, bizarre, action-comedy cult classic. It just never comes together the way it needs to. Chalk up another win for style in the style-vs-substance rivalry.
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Eric D. Snider (website) would freak out if he heard a sword weeping.