Buried within the garish, computer-enhanced Old West of 'The Warrior's Way,' fleeting moments of pleasure can be found: a rain of black-clad ninjas fall from the sky; a dance under a starry, starry night; the kooky colors of a computer-generated town; the beauty of Kate Bosworth. Unfortunately, they're barely sufficient to fill a three-minute trailer. And when the filmmakers have to rely on the reactions of an incredibly cute and expressive baby to fill out the 100-minute running time, you know you're in trouble.
Jang Dong-gun, the dishy Korean star of 'The Promise' and 'Typhoon,' plays Yang, a stoic assassin who becomes the greatest swordsman in the world. He's a member of the Silent Flutes, led by Saddest Flute (the great Chinese actor Ti Lung), and their aim is to wipe out all their rivals. When at last only one opponent, an infant princess, remains, Yang falters; even though he's just killed her parents and wiped out her entire clan with a few dozen slashes of his sword, her beatific smile saves her. Unable to complete his deadly mission, he flees to America, where he encounters the lovely Lynne (Kate Bosworth), helpful Eight-Ball (Tony Cox), filthy drunk Ron (Geoffrey Rush) and the diabolically evil Colonel (Danny Huston).
Lynne is the only good-looking person -- really, she looks great -- in a forsaken Old West town called Lode that looks like it was dreamed up by someone on psychedelic drugs.
It resembles a ghost town plopped in the middle of the Sahara Desert, surrounded by endless acres of sand dunes, with the sky painted in a child's crayon version of "the magic hour," that brief period after the sun sets and before the sky is completely darkened. The town itself looks like what it actually was during filming, a bunch of flat fronts erected on a green-screen stage and partially buried in sand.
Lynne, whose face looks suspiciously unlined for someone who spends so much time in the sun, takes a shine to the man she calls Skinny, and persuades him to go into the laundry business with her. Yang / Skinny, who came to Lode in search of an old friend who used to run the laundry, decides to stay, keeping his sword out of sight, and begins to learn important life lessons. He discovers the joys of scrubbing dirty clothes, planting and nurturing flowers, and blowing bubbles with the infant princess.
Lurking out in the distance, however, is the Colonel. Years before, his gang of Hell Riders rampaged through Lode. He attempted to rape the teenage Lynne, but she resisted fiercely, scarring his face and incurring his wrath, resulting in the cold-blooded slaughter of her family. Now the Colonel prepares to return, evidently because he's running out of other towns to terrorize.
The Colonel, it should be acknowledged, may be a force of evil, but he still has standards. For example, the insists that the women that he rapes have good teeth. And when he learns that the only woman in town with good teeth is married, he refuses to sleep with her; instead, he shoots her and her husband dead. Then he orders their teenage daughters to be stripped, bathed and properly cleansed of lice before he assaults them.
We said he had standards, not that they were good standards.
The Silent Flutes also remain a threat. We learn that the reason Yang / Skinny / Sandman (the latter a nickname from the drunken Ron) stopped using his mighty sword is because the cries of all the souls he's killed will be heard by the Silent Flutes when he draws his weapon from its sheath. Will he be tempted to pull it out in order to defend his new friends?
On paper, none of this may sound particularly bad. Director Sngmoo Lee is not the first to complete a "Kim Chee Western" -- Kim Ji-woon added a Korean sensibility to the Spaghetti Western in 'The Good, the Bad, the Weird' -- but he may be the first to make an Asian Western on a stage in New Zealand. All the backgrounds were added later, which adds an unreal, fantastical element to the proceedings.
Occasionally, it works, as in the already-cited desert-dancing scene, in which Yang and Lynne's knife training exercise transforms into a flirtatious whirl under the stars. The arrival of the Silent Flutes, dressed up like ninjas, is also delightfully insane -- where are they coming from, the moon?
Too often, however, the film is bogged down in earthbound time-wasting. Jang Dong-gun is hampered by the requirement that his character speak heavily-accented English only sparingly. Stoic is one thing, but Yang (or Skinny or Sandman or whatever you want to call him) simply looks blank and expressionless, rather than an Asian "Man With No Name," a la Clint Eastwood. We don't see any hint of deep thoughts or haunted feelings behind his dead eyes.
Kate Bosworth appears sparkling clean even when her face is smudged with dirt and sand. She moves very well, which makes her look good in her fight scenes, and exudes a healthy, lusty, if restrained air. Geoffrey Rush is properly theatrical, and Danny Huston seems to enjoy chewing the scenery. Ti Lung, who made so many enjoyable martial arts movies years ago, as well as John Woo's outstanding 'A Better Tomorrow' and many more, is a commanding presence; you just wish he had more to do than glower and bellow.
When the fight scenes do, occasionally, break out, they're the same old flash-cutting, computer-enhanced, slow-motioned sequences that have long since become dreary to endure. As so often happens, it's nearly impossible to follow the choreography, so you can't see what dangerous perils and near-misses, exactly, our heroes are facing as they navigate through the action. You end up just checking your watch, waiting for the scene to finish so you can see who survives.
'The Warrior's Way' gets lost early and never regains its footing. But at least the baby is cute.