We’ve all been there: it’s a boring summer Sunday night, payday isn’t til next Friday, and you can’t afford AC, so here you are watching random Netflix movies you’ve never heard of as you sweat into the couch and try to cool down with cheap beer. No? Just me? Well…use your imagination. You’ve just finished Centurion with Michael Fassbender, another entry into the oddly large sub-genre of medieval/ classical era adventure movies that was exactly as mediocre as you expected it to be. Roll credits, and up pop Netflix’s suggestions for other movies you might like. You’ve still got half a Landshark left and it’s only ten, so what the hell, start up the next one: The Warrior’s Way. The synopsis says something about an eastern swordsman stereotype leaving his home to travel to the American West. That’s right–a genre hybrid of the samurai film and the Western. Well, this should be every bit as good (read: fascinatingly terrible) as that one with Karl Urban where the Vikings and Native Americans get in a fight…just because. So. The Warrior’s Way. Let’s do it.
“Okay. Settle down,” the grizzled, folksy Western narrator begins, oddly fitting the token oriental sound of the bamboo flutes starting up the score in the background. The voice sounds familiar–both as a movie trope, and as an actor, but I can’t place it. “A long long time ago, in a land far far away, there lived a warrior with empty eyes.” The movie opens on this warrior (Korean star Dong-gun Jang), whose expression remains completely blank as he eviscerates a group of ambushing ninjas with as much cinematic style as you could ask for. The narrator and subtitles tell us that this warrior (I’ll be honest I had to look up his name–it’s Yang) is the second best swordsman in the world. Now Yang faces the number one swordsman. He turns out to be about as easy as the grunts, and within the first scene of the movie, Yang has become the best swordsman in the world. “Ever.” From this point on, from the casual way he rises to the top, it’s clear that this is not a film about a swordsman’s skill in battle…which is already a bit surprising. Yang is a study in nonchalance–he’s the best, and he will be for the rest of the film. But as his former rival slumps to the ground, Yang strides forward to his prize, the ornate box that these ninjas had been protecting. He opens it, and he meets his match–a baby girl. The narrator explains that this baby is the last living member of the rival clan, with which Yang’s own clan has been at war for centuries. All he has to do is kill this baby to end the war forever…but he can’t. Instead he takes the baby under his wing and, knowing that this would outrage his own clan, runs as far away as he can.
I know, I know. It sounds about as contrived as you can get. And it won’t stop looking that way for another few minutes. Upon his arrival into the archetypal Western town that has fallen upon hard times, Yang is greeted by a host of equally stereotypical hicks and colorful characters, including members of a traveling circus that never left the town. Despite being totally hooked by the opening, I got a really bad feeling about the rest of the film when Lynne (Kate Bosworth), a boisterous cowgirl with an overdone western accent, introduces herself on screen. And I let out an audible groan the first time I saw Eight Ball (Tony Cox), the black midget from the circus with a faded top hat covering the white 8 tattooed on his bald head. Add to that a hapless town drunk, and get ready for some wacky odd couple comedy and piles of gags about genre conventions and East-West stereotype crossovers!
Except the film never descends to that level, despite how easy that would be. What happens instead is we are taken in by these villagers just as Yang is. It turns out that Eight Ball’s wackiness is more like a psychological defense against the village’s desperate situation, the town drunk is a sorrowful widower with a violent past (who turns out to be played by a barely recognizable Geoffrey Rush), and Lynne’s back story is as dark as they come. The whole village is under the thumb of a mysterious ex-officer and his gang of bandits, who show up every once in a while to rape and pillage to their heart’s content. With the arrival of Yang, who is in turn pursued by the clan of warriors he turned his back on, the whole situation is headed towards a final act of stylish cross-genre violence that is not to be missed.
I fired up The Warrior’s Way for the promise of some campy, gory, ninja-on-cowboy action, but was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful, compelling film that goes way beyond its simplistic synopsis. The film didn’t get many good reviews, but that seems to be because critics wanted to put into genre categories to which it doesn’t belong. Sure, it’s a bad Western, and it’s a bad samurai movie, and it’s a bad action comedy, because it’s not trying to be any of those things. Though the entire premise is based on a clash between two of the most static and well-know genres in film, it manages to actually defy genre expectations at every turn. It has plenty of beautiful violence, but it doesn’t glorify it. It has romance, but not in the way you’d expect. Add to that some surprisingly solid performances, beautiful cinematography, and fluid action scenes with just the right amount of style, and The Warrior’s Way turned out to be the best hidden gem I’ve found yet this year. Go see it!