The Warrior’s Way

Director: Sngmoo Lee
Starring: Dong-gun Jang, Kate Bosworth
Runtime: 100 minutes
Rating: ***

So, this is a curiosity – a debut feature from director/screenwriter Sngmoo Lee with one tiny setting for most of its 100 minutes, with strong leads in a curious yet compelling cast, and a plot that can’t decide whether it’s a Western or a story about Eastern warrior values. For all that, The Warrior’s Way is a beautiful film, injected at odd intervals with flights of fancy that feel at once alien and perfectly at home.

The film’s opening minutes greet us with a series of fight scenes, and the story of one man’s quest to be the greatest warrior of all time. Crippled by emotion when ordered to kill the infant leader of his rival clan, Yang escapes his homeland – supposedly for America, though the precise locations are never revealed.

Here, everything changes. Yang, played smoothly if woodenly by Dong-gun Jang in his first feature-length English-speaking role, finds a small circus town in the middle of nowhere, where he begins a complex relationship with Kate Bosworth’s Lynne, and integrates himself as the owner of the town’s laundrette. Geoffrey Rush plays a clownish drunk with a disturbing proficiency for weapons, and Tony Cox is an affable leader-of-sorts called Eight-Ball (so named because he’s “good luck to some, bad luck to others”). The basic plot of the film involves the town trying to drive back local outlaw The Colonel (Danny Huston chewing the scenery), and later, the warriors of the clan that Yang betrayed.

This is a film that can fool you with its lavish visuals; the vast majority of the film was filmed on sets despite the exterior setting, with deliberately unnatural lighting and a series of skylines designed to take the breath away that were added in post-production. But it’s extremely spartan in terms of everything else. The speaking cast is small, and any story threads outside of Yang’s burgeoning relationship with Lynne and the attempts to slaughter the intruders to the town are introduced and resolved within minutes. The Warrior’s Way does not waste its time, and that ends up being both to its credit and downfall. On the one hand, Lynne’s backstory – told through a quick flashback sequence rather than a drawn-out series of small revelations – is shocking and rounds her character off; on the other hand, other characters feel wanting.

The film’s biggest crime, however, is its underuse of Geoffrey Rush, known to most as the equally nuts Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Anyone familiar with the trailer will have seen the exciting build-up as a hundred assassins land on the roves of every building in town, followed by Rush’s glib comment of “ninjas. Damn.” That line’s absent from the film; you get the impression that it’s not the only one they cut. It’s still a good film, but it could have been better.