The Warrior’s Way is junk. Pure, unadulterated junk. Slapdash, derivative, stealing from its betters with brazen abandon, it has nothing to offer that any self-respecting film-goer would like. Which is part of what makes it so guilty-pleasure cool Though not as smart or sophisticated as Quentin Tarantino’s exercises, it comes from the same part of town: with a spring in its step and a twinkle in its eye that reminds us to stop taking it all so seriously. Taken as the quick-fix mash-up it’s clearly intended to be, it becomes a whole lot of fun. The Snickers bar may not be good for you, but you can’t help enjoying it when it goes down.
As envisioned by first-time director Sngmoo Lee, The Warrior’s Way gives us a wild collision of Crouching Tiger style kung fu and Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns (with a dash of Fellini thrown in for good measure). The trick has witnessed its share of practitioners, starting with Kurosawa and proceeding through the likes of Red Sun, Shanghai Noon and Sukyiaki Western Django. Lee brings very little new to the proceedings; indeed his various shticks seem awfully sticky-fingered sometimes. But if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, and whatever his flaws, the man knows what works. He injects his own energy and sensibilities into the proceedings as well, providing The Warrior’s Way with enough distinction to stand on its own.
The storyline follows a predictable curve. The Greatest Warrior In the Whole Wide World (Jang Dong-gun) can’t bring himself to kill the last survivor of a rival clan, mostly because she’s three weeks old. Now hunted by his own clan, he sails to the States, where he comes across an empty desert town full of former circus performers. They have troubles of their own—a nasty bandit named Colonel (Danny Huston) and his associates have a way of riding in and blowing people’s heads off. But the newcomer knows a thing or two about beheadings himself, and sets out to right the local wrongs… even as an army of his fellow brethren closes in.
Lee takes everything to 11, aided by an environment constructed solely from green screen and a few bits of stuntwork. The actors all tear into the work with gusto, as Huston and Geoffrey Rush (playing the town drunk) battle to see who can chew the most scenery the fastest. Both of them are in on the joke, of course, rendering their operatic hamminess gleeful instead of just appalling. Jang goes the opposite direction: all stoic and mysterious even as he woos the pretty young knife-thrower (Kate Bosworth) who has a score to settle with the Colonel.
It sags in the middle and the ending isn’t quite what it should be, but that’s almost beside the point. Lee constantly finds little details to give his audience a grin, and while the fight scenes won’t make anyone forget Crouching Tiger, neither do they just set themselves on autopilot and take our goodwill for granted. In the midst of the kaleidoscope, something resembling a good time slowly emerges, egged on by sheer goofy preposterousness. Of all its distinguished (and less-than-distinguished) predecessors, it actually most closely resembles Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead in tone and outlook. It can’t match that underrated effort, but it makes you glad it tried. Most importantly, it doesn’t ask for anything more than an open mind and a willingness to be entertained. If you can’t figure out why a clown shooting a ninja is forty kinds of awesome, it’s not going to waste time explaining it to you.