In many ways, there’s no movie concept more juvenile, more basic, or more ridiculous than Cowboys Vs. Ninjas. They come from opposite sides of the globe, of course, and certainly the loose, devil-may-care murderin’ style of a cowboy’s gun is no match for the stealthy throat-slitting sword of a trained assassin. On top of all that, what do they have to fight over? Ninjas never really seem to like brothels, and honor isn’t worth much on the dusty plain.
Despite (or possibly because of) all these limitations, Korean writer-director Sngmoo Lee’s THE WARRIOR’S WAY (2010) proves to be a stylish and aesthetically wonderful action film that takes pride in its B-level plot. There’s not much missing from the title for me to tell, except perhaps some of the characters names. Yang (newcomer Dong-gun Jang), we are told by both a narrator and subtitles, is the most powerful swordsman in the history of mankind – we know because he kills the former most powerful swordsman in the history of mankind. Yang is a member of the Sad Flutes (“The sound made when the throat is slit” he explains), and it is this ninja squad that he betrays by refusing to kill little April, the last living member of a rival clan.
Seeking solace and safety, Yang travels way out west to the town of Lode, population 500, where drunkards, clowns, midgets, and world-class beauties fend off a tribe of cowboy-bandits led by Danny Huston’s intimidating Colonel. Huston, whose father and sister each hold a place in the Hollywood Hall of Fame, is just one member of an A-list cast doing their best to seem serious here. Indeed, certain inhabitants of the squalid town are played by Kate Bosworth as the requisite love interest and none other than Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush as the never-not-drunk Ron, who (as fate would have it) turns out to be a master gunslinger. This cast elevates what could have been a typical New Zealander-American-Korean swords-and-bullets love story into a slightly less typical New Zealander-American-Korean swords-and-bullets love story.
Although taking potshots at the plot of THE WARRIORS WAY is easy, the style and atmosphere are wholly different matters. The action sequences are relatively standard for any film with ninjas, but they appear completely fresh because of their visual beauty. Lee has an eye for angles and colors, using intensely vivid CGI and a lot of green screen to wring out as much adrenaline as he can from the genre. Almost from the beginning, the Cowboys vs. Ninjas set-up seems contrived, but the various gunshots, knife-throws, and dynamite explosions bring out an impressively original group of scenes. One of my particular favorites has very little to do with visual effects or style, but really just with a line by Colonel: “See you in hell, little girl. Wear something nasty.”
Rush, Huston, and Bosworth all know what they have gotten themselves into, and it is a true pleasure to see talented actors have a little fun. Rush is getting rave reviews as we speak for Tom Hooper’s THE KING’S SPEECH, but who would rather see a stuffy British drama then a nearly-scriptless bloodbath on a Friday night? Bosworth’s last big foray into sci-fi was Bryan Singer’s lukewarm SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006), but here she makes a bit more of an impression playing someone with a backbone and a deadly glint in her eye. What’s more, just for the men in the audience who don’t get enough of a rush from the blood spurting out in glass clouds, she spends the final act of the film in a corset while kicking ass. Huston hits more familiar notes than even the nearly-silent Yang, and here he recycles bits and pieces of his more intimidating roles – films like THE PROPOSITION and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT spring powerfully to mind. But this sort of character is his specialty, and as a Jonah Hex-style cowboy, he adds pizzazz to a role that we know is pretty easy to butcher (just ask Josh Brolin).
Small side-note: the film’s score seemed much more impressive to me than the film itself, utilizing everything from electric and Spanish guitars, quiet flutes, and full orchestras. I did not realize until the end credits that the master behind PAN’S LABYRINTH, Javier Navarrete, composed the original music – someone give this man a franchise.
THE WARRIRORS WAY (Rogue, December 3, 2010). Written and Directed by: Sngmoo Lee. Original music by: Javier Navarrete. Cast:
- Yang – Dong-gun Jang
- Ron – Geoffrey Rush
- Lynne – Kate Bosworth
- Colonel – Danny Huston
- 8-Ball – Tony Cox
- Saddest Flute – Ti Lung
- Baby April – Analin Rudd