In the abundance of trailers jostling for position each time you visit the multiplex, somewhere between car adverts and that bloody Orange ad for Gulliver’s Travels that I’m starting to worry will just go on forever, someone occasionally makes you sit up and pay attention.
And if you’ve seen the trailer for The Warrior’s Way, it’s just one line of dialogue from alcoholic gunslinger Geoffrey Rush. “Ninjas. Damn.”
Cowboys are cool. Ninjas more so. It’s this kind of combination of Western elements with cool stuff that’s expected to serve Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens well next summer, but in the meantime, we have another attempt to mash up Hong Kong martial arts cinema with Western B-movie in just the kind of post-colonial misstep that Hollywood seems to make over and over again these days.
In the last year or two, we’ve seen two of these wrong-footed action flicks that tried and failed to capture the essence of the wilder eastern equivalent. Last year, Blood: The Last Vampire mashed up horror and martial arts, but forgot to bring in much plot or logic. And earlier this year, Ninja Assassin was the least fun it’s possible to have with a police procedural thriller called Ninja Assassin.
What we get in The Warrior’s Way is a little better, perhaps for the work of Sngmoo Lee, who writes and directs the film and isn’t American. His story follows Yang, a Sad Flute swordsman who kills “The Greatest Swordsman In The History Of Mankind Ever” early on, and by the rule of Top Trumps or something, gains that title himself.
The film put a daft grin on my face with the Scott Pilgrim-esque on-screen graphics that illustrate this changeover, but it doesn’t maintain this sense of humour. It’s more concerned with Yang taking mercy on the last survivor of an enemy clan, a baby girl. Having slaughtered her family and her people, Yang decides to save her and take her with him to the New World.
Hiding out in a rundown circus set up in a frontier town, Yang befriends Lynne, a skilled knife thrower who has vowed revenge on the disfigured Colonel who killed her family in front of her. The Colonel and his ravening comrades aim to bring war to the circus once again, while the Sad Flute clan aren’t exactly pleased with their brightest member’s desertion.
What’s weird is that Lee handles the Western element of the story better than the martial arts element, as if influenced by Sergio Leone in the former aspect and by Undefeatable in the latter.
We’ve seen this type of crossover before, and while some may be naïve enough to think it’s Hard Boiled meets High Noon, it’s really closer to a Neveldine/Taylor rendition of Shanghai Noon.
Yang very willingly takes on the American way, as is the fashion of these films. In the virtuous Lynne, you get a willing pupil who absorbs the cool-looking stuff from Yang’s teachings, but is more often seen ingratiating Yang into his job at the local launderette. Kate Bosworth plays Lynne like a sexed up and vengeful version of Jessie from Toy Story, and Dong-gun Jang comes across as blank as Keanu Reeves whenever he’s not jumping in the air and slicing something into bits.
Animated blood and wonky CGI are here, along with many other fixtures from Blood: The Last Vampire and Ninja Assassin. Somehow, though, the idea of martial arts and Western together appeals more than putting martial arts into vampire films or police dramas.
I actually quite like Shanghai Noon, not only because of my great appreciation of Jackie Chan in anything and everything, but because it’s clearly one of his better English language buddy movie efforts. The Warrior’s Way is doing the same thing, but keeping a straight face about it.
The permanent straight face is what makes some parts unintentionally hilarious. Casting Tony Cox as a midget with a figure 8 painted on his head isn’t the way to make an audience take your film seriously, but the absolute trough, by a long shot, is Danny Huston. Huston plays the Colonel like Vernon Wells from Commando would have played Jack Torrance in The Shining. It’s embarrassingly bad, and a low point for Huston.
There’s also little threat from those much mooted ninjas coming to town. Here’s a clue as to why: Yang defeats “The Greatest Swordsman In The History Of Mankind Ever” in the first five minutes. We’re repeatedly told, by no less than the master who’s going to fight his student, that Yang was trained to be the strongest there is. Is there really any jeopardy for Yang, or his young charge?
The highlight is Geoffrey Rush, who refuses to phone it in as old soak Ron, tackling head-on the tired idea of the once violent man now forced to resume violence for the greater good. The saddest thing of all is that a certain line doesn’t appear in the finished film. The best line in the whole film isn’t even in the film.
It takes its sweet time getting to the action-packed conclusion, and even once we get there, its master-student confrontation and copious flashbacks are over-familiar from, you guessed it, Blood: The Last Vampire and/or Ninja Assassin.
Think of another Western show that takes transgeneric elements from the east, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Of the series’ Hong Kong sensibilities, Whedon said, “There is a convention in Hollywood to fall back upon clichés – or on time-honoured structure… and in these films, where you thought you were going to be terrified, the broadest comedy might appear.
“Wherever you thought this guy has been defeated, he might come back and kill everyone in the room, and then suddenly be defeated. You just never knew.” Hollywood’s failure to extrapolate the best parts of martial arts cinema thus far has clearly been down to the lack of surprise in films like these.
The Warrior’s Way might err to close to the Hollywood Way, but it has enough gumption that it’s at least a step in the right direction. I don’t believe American cinema chimes with martial arts the way studios seem to want it to, but this is an enjoyable enough film on its merits as a Western. It’s a damn sight better than the ludicrously inept Jonah Hex, but not good enough to deny that my rating is a generous one.
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