2010's "The Warrior's Way" had a lot working against it, despite what looked on paper to be an interesting cast. Having sat shelved for nearly three years, a hasty judgment would have assumed it to be an unmitigated disaster in the making and the quiet dumping of it at the end of the year amidst the height of Oscar season and holiday films didn't help matters either. However, for the viewer who checks all expectations at the door and has a solid understanding just what "The Warrior's Way" is, a generally fun time awaits.
Writer/Director Sngmoo Lee shoots for the stars with his tale of the titular warrior Yang (Jang Dong Gun), who enters the film not with a bang, but a stab, dispatching countless foes before becoming "The Greatest Swordsman in the History of Mankind," a title punctuated by a stylized on-screen graphic. Lee doesn't try to hide the biggest hindrance to the film, instead he embraces the film's over-the-top CGI assisted (including torrents of blood) comic book style to action, however, the film that follows is far from an exercise in excess, especially the one promised by trailers and TV spots. Having a heart beneath his tough and deadly exterior, Yang refuses to kill the last remaining member of his rival clan, a small child and instead flees to America in search of his friend, the proprietor of a laundry in the depressed western carnival town of Lode.
The film plays fast and furious with genre clichés: the Eastern outsider, the fiery female love interest, Lynne (played by a vibrant Kate Bosworth, clearly having a load of fun with her role), a woman hiding a dark secret and thirst for revenge, a seemingly unimportant character played by a major actor (in this case, Geoffrey Rush as the town drunk), and most importantly the ever looming threat of danger. Lee slows the story down and allows Yang and the viewer to adjust to surroundings, building both chemistry between Yang and Lynne (if you bet money the master swordsman would eventually train the aspiring knife wielder, you'd make some quick cash) and allowing the town and it's interesting band of carnival folk (led by Tony Cox in the typical thankless role he's so well known for) before introducing danger. The twist though (and I'm spoiling nothing here, since it's telegraphed almost instantly), is that evil doesn't come (initially) in the form of Yang's former master, Saddest Flute (Ti Lung, the film's most brilliant casting decision, at least to former Shaw fans), but instead of a truly double-edged character played by Danny Houston, the sadistic, cartoonish Colonel.
Lee's direction and writing skills take a big hit when the Colonel shows up, with Mad Max-lite cadre of neer-do-wells in tow. As bloody and brilliant as the opening scenes of Yang's fights are, the Colonel and his misdeeds are equally gruesome and often sap the film of it's initially good nature. Make no mistake, "The Warrior's Way" is a hard-R film, not for kids at all, but Lee gives viewers the impression that someone made a live-action cartoon for them, only to have the rug pulled from beneath their feet late into the film. Houston is entirely effective as the character, but Lee feels the need to hammer the viewer over the head by making a number of references to rape and eventually take the character to a level of uncomfortable sleaze that just doesn't mesh with the fanciful action.
In the end, "The Warrior's Way" is a flawed adult fable. It's never able to make up it's mind whether it wants to be an amped up cartoon or go in a more darkly comic direction a la "Shoot 'Em Up" (which was entirely more cruel than this, but was consistent in it's gleeful depravity). At the very least though, the film is a showcase for Jang Dong Gun's talents, generally unknown to a Western audience. He is extremely effective in a role that calls for equal parts calm and intensity and leaves the film the biggest winner, upstaging Oscar winner Rush, with Huston and Bosworth close on his heels, reminding the rest of Hollywood that there is no shame in ambitious genre fun. To make a long story short, give "The Warrior's Way" a try if only for it's full commitment to a risky approach to filmmaking.
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite sharp, providing a vibrant reproduction of the film's color palette, a balanced natural level of contrast and minimal grain/noise. Detail levels are always strong, not perfect by any means, but as eye pleasing as the rest of the film.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is brimming with life, balancing the quiet character moments and the noisy, action-from-all-angles with skill and ease. No one section of the track is more aggressive than another and will easily provide a satisfying listening experience. A 5.1 French track is included as well as English subtitles for the hearing impaired as well as standard French and Spanish subtitles..
The two extras are a very short montage of behind-the-scenes footage as well as a collection of deleted scenes which run the gamut from understandably cut to "hey, that might have added something to the film proper."
"The Warrior's Way" isn't high-art, but that doesn't stop it from taking a relatively simple tale and telling it in a stylish, artistic manner. Strong performances and exciting, over-the-top action save the inconsistencies and shortcomings of the story. If you like unflinching tales of heroism, revenge, and action that pits carnies against gunmen and ninjas (yes, ninjas!), then give the film a whirl. Recommended.