Saturday, December 11, 2010


Freshman writer & director Sngmoo Lee pays tribute to all those East-meets-West horse opera/samurai adventure epics from the 1970s with “The Warrior’s Way.” This action-paced saga synthesizes elements of vintage Shaw Brother martial arts spectacles and violent revenge-themed Spaghetti westerns. A number of these culture-clash oaters appeared in the 1970s where coiffed swordsmen and kung fu masters teamed up with swift-shooting serape-clad gunslingers. Some of these memorable mash-ups with Asian warriors and frontier ruffians were Terence Young’s “Red Sun” (1971) co-starring Charles Bronson and Toshirô Mifune; Antonio Margheriti‘s “The Stranger and the Gunfighter” (1974) with Lee Van Cleef and Lieh Lo; Mario Caiano‘s "The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe" (1974) with Klaus Kinski and Chen Lee, and Sergio Corbucci‘s “Shoot First . . . Ask Questions Later” (1975) Eli Wallach and Tomas Milian. Contemporary audiences probably remember Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson in Tom Dey’s “Shanghai Noon” (2000) and perhaps Takashi Miike’s more recent “Sukiyaki Western Django” (2007) with Quentin Tarantino and Hideaki Itô. “The Warrior’s Way” (***½ out of ****) teems with gravity-defying ninjas that magically materialize out of thin-air and hordes of plug-ugly pistoleros who look like they are taking a siesta from the “Mad Max” franchise.

“The Warrior’s Way” opens with our hero, Yang (South Korean superstar Dong-gun Jang of “Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War”), wiping out an entire clan of swordsmen and ending a 500-year rivalry between the Sad Flutes army of assassins and an anonymous clan. Yang has emerged from his final battle without a scratch and needs only to slay a defenseless infant princess. Before he can carve up the adorable little girl, he feels the petal of a flower float down onto his cheek and he experiences a change of heart. Mind you, Yang has been taught from youth by his wise master, Saddest Flute (Lung Ti of “A Better Tomorrow”), to slash anything to ribbons for which he feels the slightest affection. Something about the infant princess, Baby April (Analin Rudd) alters our pugnacious warrior’s attitude. Yang embarks on a journey with the child in tow. Most critics compare these two to the “Lone Wolf and Cub” film franchise, but the Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan silent classic “The Kid” (1921) where the Little Tramp befriends a cast off child seems far more appropriate.

Since Yang and Baby April aren’t safe in Asia, they climb aboard a sailing ship to America. Nevertheless, Yang is hounded every step of the way by Sad Flute assassins. Some of these killers are quite inconspicuous at first glance, but Yang can spot them just by the murderous vibes that they exude. One such incident occurs at a café as a hunched over woman with more wrinkles than a shar pei dog serves them food and tries to slip a knife out of a scabbard cleverly disguised as a plank in the table. Yang skewers her left eye with matched chopsticks, torches the café and continues on his way. Trouble is that our hero has left behind clues to his destination and the Sad Flutes follow. Yang knows that the Sad Flutes are committed to following him to the far corners of the earth, but he also realizes that the only thing that will give away his location is the sound of his sword unsheathed. He decides to look up an old friend Smiley who has taken up residence in a town smack in the middle of nowhere with a desert sealing it off from the outside world.

Running away from violence is easier said than done for our protagonist. He winds up in the inauspicious town of Lode. The citizens welcome Yang and April but Yang learns that his old friend has died. Lode ran a laundry and Yang decides that this might be the best thing to do to throw his enemy off his scent. Yang meets a cute sexy gal, Lynne (Kate Bosworth of “Blue Crush”), and she falls head-over-heels in love with our hero and little April. Unfortunately, like the remote frontier settlement in Don Siegel’s made-for-TV western “Stranger on the Run” with Henry Fonda, the town of Lode suffers from the depredations of an insanely evil man called the Colonel (Danny Huston of “Edge of Darkness”) rode into the town with his army of men to rape and pillage. He attacked Lynne when she was much younger, but she retaliated with a skillet of sizzling potatoes that permanently scarred his face and drove him out of town. Eventually, the Colonel returns looking like the Phantom of the Opera with another army of killers to finish what Lynne started.

No sooner has our hero arrived in Lode looking for anonymity than the Colonel and his army of sadistic killers threaten to destroy the town. A drunken gunslinger, Ron (Academy Award winning Geoffrey Rush of “Shine”), swears off his cactus juice long enough to wield a high-powered rifle to perforate the Colonel’s low-down minions as they storm the town. Ron’s strategy resembles the sharp-shooting protagonist in Tonino Valerii’s classic Spaghetti western “My Name Is Nobody” where Henry Fonda targeted saddle bags stuffed with dynamite on the backs of an army of horsemen. Every time that he put a bullet in the shining conchos of the saddle bags, a horseman vanished in a dusty explosion. Predictably, Ron eliminates his share of riders before Yang slices up the rest with his razor-sharp sword. In the middle of this mayhem, Saddest Flute shows up with his army of ninjas and all hell really breaks loose.

“The Warrior’s Way” features stoic Korean superstar Dong-gun Jang. This handsome, dark-haired individual exudes presence as he peers out from beneath his Veronica Lake hairstyle and wields a samurai saber with the finesse of a chef slashing up a meal. Oddly enough, this dust raiser of a western was lensed in location in Australia with the liberal use of computer-generated imagery so it has a contrived “Wizard of Oz” staginess that some critics have derided. Nevertheless, Lee displays enviable style as he orchestrates several ultra-violent showdowns between the heroes and villains. “Lies” cinematographer Woo-Hyung Kim provides visually compelling compositions galore that clinch your attention. Indeed, Lee and Kim have conjured up a very kinetic piece of blood and gore that should make “The Warrior’s Way” an eventual cult hit on video since audiences aren’t turning out in droves to see it. Basically, “The Warrior’s Way” is a glorified B-movie actioneer brimming with eccentric characters and wholesale bloodshed.