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Non-Review Review: The Warrior’s Way

I don’t think that pulpy nostalgia lends itself particularly well to cinematic reimagining. We’ve seen a variety of high-concept mish-mashes on the big screen in the past decade or so. There was a time when Freddie vs. Jason was confined to the bargain basement of your local DVD store, but we’ve seen major theatrical releases like Cowboys & Aliens or Aliens vs. Predators in the past number of years – all based around the idea that you can pit a cool concept against another cool concept and the resulting movie will be “super-cool.” Essentially an opportunity to answer the age-old question of “who would win in a fight between cowboys and ninjas”, The Warrior’s Way has a few really enjoyable and gleefully silly moments, but they tend to get lost in the midst of an overly-stylised and too-heavily-green-screen-ed moments, with a skilled cast unable to inject life into a range of characters who are struggling to reach the second dimension.

Give it a stab?

There are times during the movie, when it seems that everybody was in on the joke. There are hints that the writers and director know ow incredibly silly and fanciful the basic premise was, as if produced by pitting two adjectives against one another. Sure, it’s “Cowboys vs. Ninjas”, but I wonder if the rejected concepts included gems such as “gladiators vs. zombies” or “pirates vs. monkeys” or “werewolves vs. lawyers” or “knights vs. driving instructors.” It is all rather silly, and the movie seems to “get” the joke at times. We’re introduced to an ominous figure. “The greatest swordsman in the world,” a title card in something approaching comic sans tells us, pausing to add an, “Ever.” After our hero slays this intimidating foe, a second title card brands him, “the greatest swordsman in the world.”

There are moments that work, in the midst of the film, and they seem aware of the nature of the movie as an unholy combination of two pulpy genres, linked in spirit. There is a duel in the desert, where the blades clink in time to the ambient music. At the climax of the film, the soundtrack soars in homage to Ennio Morricone, as if uniting his work on Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns with a more Oriental sound. Dong-gun Jang puts in a credible lead performance that illustrates the thematic similarities between the stoic protagonist of a Western and that of a ninja or martial arts movie.

Bringing a gun to a sword fight...

I really enjoyed a short sequence where a woman walks on our lead while he’s washing, only for him to hastily cover up, in what seems like a sly shout-out to the obligatory hero-catches-our-heroine-nude scenes in these films. There’s even a nice moment towards the start of the film, after our erstwhile ninja finds and becomes the protector of a baby, where he bundles it up and carries it like luggage – as if acknowledging that the cute little baby is nothing but an awkward plot device in all this.

However, for all these moments that work, there are more that don’t. As much as the film is aware that the baby is a plot device and treats it as such, that doesn’t really work with the characters. Kate Bosworth makes a noble effort as the female lead, the emotionally damaged and out-for-revenge Lynne, but the film never even tries to develop her. The same for the villainous colonel played by Danny Huston or the town drunk played by Geoffrey Rush. Each one is a cliché, but none of them ever seem truly interesting. Huston has fun chewing on the not-really-there digital scenery, while Rush seems locked in a battle to the death with his dodgy American accent, spouting nonsense like, “This was no time for feelin’.”

Knife to meet you...

There’s also the fact that film seems to taken relatively little joy in what it’s doing. If you promise me “cowboys vs. ninjas”, then you’d better give me something memorable. Instead, we get a standard “western town under siege from evil character with dubious military rank” plotline, before ninjas start dropping out of the sky, as if God just opened a pack of “insta-ninjas” on the situation. The sword fights are all incredibly quick and over before they begin, while the ninjas and cowboys are frequently reduced to cannon fodder for one another.

The cowboys and ninjas seem to alternate between being their own thing (ie a cowboy or a ninja) and being victims, if that makes sense. It always seems like we’re watching a clip where cowboys take out a generic threat, or where ninjas take out a generic threat. There’s only a handful of “that was kinda cool”moments packed between generic cowboy moments and generic ninja moments. For example, when the cowboys fall back, the ninjas seem to forget their ninja training and just run up a flight of stairs to get shot, one after another (as opposed to, for example, coming through the windows or something).

Oh, shoot...

The sword fight sequences seem especially disappointing, with the sequences over before they’ve really begun. One imagines that it might have been more successful to meld the western and the ninja film by focusing on the slow and meticulous build-up that the best examples of both share – although a gun fight is arguably over quicker than a sword fight, it’s still easy to wrangle a great deal of suspense out of it. Instead, the action is very much of the “quick, quick, quick” variety, which ignores the rich power of a slow and steady confrontation.

The movie uses green screen a lot. It’s quite jarring, if only because it doesn’t look like it had the budget to pull it off as convincingly or as stylishly as it might have wanted. This is a shame, because some of the practical close-ups actually look quite impressive, seeming consciously stylised – they look like the sort of thing that Tim Burton of Guillermo Del Toro might have imagined (bonus points for including a creepy circus). It’s a shame that this sort of effect doesn’t hold-up for the long distance shots.

Cut!

The Warrior’s Way feels like something of a curate’s egg. There were parts of it that I really enjoyed, and where it seemed to live up to the gleeful silliness of its basic premise. Unfortunately, those moments felt a little too small and far between in the context of the wider movie.

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