Friday, December 10, 2010

Ninjas... Damn

Okay, having to wait for the good stuff to come out gets a little desperate sometimes. Deciding to go see a film in the theaters and then having to choose between The Warrior's Way and Faster just doesn't seem right somehow. The former is the premier film by writer/director Sngmoo Lee about a ninja assassin hiding out in an old west town, the latter another action film starring Dwayne Johnson and Billy Bob Thornton, who seemingly became persona non grata in Hollywood following his breakup from Angelina Jolie. And so, deciding that the first at least seemed somewhat original, I decided to haul myself across frozen rivers in hopes that I wasn't wasting my time.

Really, does sword-slashing really ever get old?
Despite what you might at first think, The Warrior's Way is not a martial arts film. Not really. Beginning perhaps with the multiple-award winning film I'm sure most have seen, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, many Asian films that have made their way over the States have been over-the-top theatrical fantasy dramas, complete with impossible visuals and high-wire acts. In the early days of martial arts films, the story mainly evolved around people beating one another up, but what was so amazing about it was that the stars were their own stunt men, and many of the tricks pulled off were done solely by the performer, with little in the way of Hollywood trickery to make things appear more amazing than they really were. It simply wasn't needed. Now, while films like Ong Bak still portray martial artists as the ultimate stuntmen, many of the films coming overseas would kill to be the next Crouching Tiger or Jet Li's Hero, but the schtick is overdone now. While some, like Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle have been better and done well overall, eventually you get to the point where you have to scream "Enough already!". Of course, The Warrior's Way isn't even an Asian-produced film. It was made in Auckland, New Zealand and funded by Barrie Osborne, who produced the Lord of the Rings films. So it's not really a martial arts movie. It's not even originally produced anywhere in Asia. It's about 90% English spoken, and has ridiculous visuals on top to boot. Oh boy, this should be fun.

Two of the biggest reasons not to see this movie
The film introduces us to Yang (Korean star Jang Dong-gun), the strongest assassin and greatest swordsman in the known world. Yang is a bad-ass cold-blooded killer with AWESOME flowing locks, tasked with the mission of killing every member of a rival clan. He's finally gotten to the end, his final enemy, killed their bodyguards, and just earned his new rep as greatest swordsman, but when his final target, a baby, inadvertently giggles, Yang has a change of heart, and decides to leave his homeland with the baby and search out an old friend who has immigrated to the USA's old west. And so Yang is hunted by his former clan, only to find that the town his friend has relocated to isn't much better.

Prepare for a fight-scene letdown
Early on, the real star of this film is the baby. Continuing what has become a new trend in Hollywood, The Warrior's Way has a baby that half the time steals the scene she happens to be in. In one scene, Yang kills an assassin who had attempted to get him to drop his guard. No sooner has the body hit the floor than the baby turns her head and gives Yang a look of "WTF!" Perfect. In these early scenes, seeing the baby do little things like this, or even watching Yang carry the baby by the scruff of its collar is amusing in it's own way. The child simply seemed to display the perfect attitude towards each scene, making the film to this point feel more authentic. Unfortunately, this is only for the first third of the film. After that, for whatever reason, the baby becomes much less important as secondary characters take more time away from young April. It's too bad, as from these early experiences I had hoped the film would have a story akin to that of the classic manga Lone Wolf and Cub.

Maybe they should have done this BEFORE she was cast
It's these secondary characters who make the film drag and feel somewhat less of what could have been. Geoffrey Rush is very good and at first almost unrecognizable as the town drunk, Ron. Good for a laugh at the beginning, Rush uses his ability to chew his way though any amount of scenery to make the most of his appearance here. And later, when he's required to be a bit more serious, he steps up to that plate as well. In short, Rush did amazing work to whatever was asked of him. The same cannot be said for Kate Bosworth as Lynne, a knife thrower with a tragic past. Even if I could get past the fact that Lynne was an uninteresting character to begin with, and that Bosworth's energy and spunk get tiring five minutes after we meet her, I simply can't get past the accent. For some reason she adopted what sounded to me to be an Alabama accent (For the old west? Really?), and the effect is annoying, atrocious, asinine, and that's just covering the A's. That she's out-acted by the baby (Analin Rudd) is telling. Tony Cox plays the mayor of this town of broken people - settlers who used to run a traveling circus - and for those who have pleasant memories of his role as the diminutive bad-guy in Bad Santa, good news! His performance level hasn't changed since 2003. At least Danny Huston is somewhat interesting as the evil character known as "The Colonel", a Civil War vet (I assume from the uniform) with a Phantom of the Opera vibe going who raids the small town with his army of brigands and pretty much has his way with the people and locale. Huston conveys evil well here, making him a compelling villain. Less so is Hong Kong actor Ti Lung as the master of Yang's former clan, who eventually hunts his former student down. This isn't really because of Lung's performance, though performing in English rather than an Asian dialect does make the film seem like it's truly geared towards the cinema buff who can't be bothered to read subtitles. Frankly, not enough is done with the part, even through a few flashbacks, to convey why he's so evil in Yang's mind. Okay, except for the whole baby-killing thing.

You tell 'em, drunken Geoffrey Rush!
The best part is actually played by the film's lead (What a concept!). Dong-gun, whose films Friend and Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War have shattered Korean box office records, is more than just good looks. He carries himself with a confidence that reminds me of a young Chow Yun-fat and his performance holds many subtleties that draw us in and keep us fixated on him. Silly special effects notwithstanding, we get the real idea of him as a character adjusting to his new, peaceful life, with not a little bit of culture shock and a few adjustments to be made. Like the baby, his best scenes are early on, and make me wish again the film had been more about the two of them on the road and avoided the whole remote town idea altogether.

This doesn't look better on screen, trust me
The visuals are at once pretty and distracting, as our eyes are drawn to the shiny and colorful backgrounds of overly-rendered green screen backdrops. The problem is that we're supposed to be paying attention to the people on the screen, and too often are the backgrounds far more interesting. Some, like the cherry blossoms blowing in the wind of the opening scene, are absolutely gorgeous, and it's a shame that the quality varies so much over the course of the film. I think I would have appreciated more gritty, less colorful views of the world, like those of this year's Book of Eli. The digital quality was somewhat lacking as well. The few explosions are pretty, but one scene involving the bad guys climbing a half-built Ferris wheel simply LOOKS like digitally-rendered characters climbing a digitally-rendered wheel. It looks cheap on the big screen, and probably should have undergone a few tweaks before it was added to the film reel. Fight scenes are mostly uninspired, with most action being quick, unseen, and unrealistic, partly the silliness of the genre, and partly because they didn't have an actual martial artist in the lead role.

Bringing a gun to a knife fight... such lack of class!
When we get down to it, The Warrior's Way is not a good movie. Some redeeming performances prevent it from being a BAD movie, but while it's probably been under-appreciated thus far, it's squarely in the middle and there just isn't much to recommend it.. Some script revisions wouldn't have hurt, as the story simply didn't work as is, and Bosworth was simply the wrong actress cast for her role. Part of me wanted to like this film, and I certainly don't regret seeing Dong-gun in action. I might check out the international section of the nearby rental shop and see if I can find any of his earlier works. But that's not enough to say you should see this film, especially now that with awards season underway, there are at least a half dozen other films you should be seeing instead.

1 comment:

Opinioness of the World said...

"...That she's out-acted by the baby is telling."