There’s a new movie out called The Warrior’s Way, and it’s flopping like a doomed fish. It was so unpublicized I wouldn’t have known it existed, except I was hunting through the movie openings for the week in my dogged way. Never say die, that’s my motto. They crap out Burlesque, 127 Hours, Love and Other Drugs, and the 112th Harry Potter movie, and I still check the new releases as if I had faith in “the entertainment business.”
The latest movie openings included Tangled—that Rapunzel-based cartoon with the bland-looking characters all yelling and mugging—and Black Swan, featuring young Hollywood hotties pretending to be serious ballerinas by staring at each other haughtily and craning their thin necks a lot, plus, I hear, having a lesbian sex scene that is completely justified artistically. Considering these grim choices, naturally The Warrior’s Way stood out—something about ninjas versus gunfighters. It was a little unclear, but even so, it almost sounded like a real movie of the old-school, made “for your viewing pleasure.”
So I went.
And, well—as kindly disposed as I was to the whole project—this is the sort of movie that’s hard to pull off. Stylized multi-genre films look easy when they work, when the Coens or Stephen Chow or Quentin Tarantino’s in the house, but we mustn’t kid ourselves. Nothing dies more horribly onscreen than a failed effort of this kind. The protracted squealing and convulsions are an agony to witness. So the film industry kahunas made sure nobody’d witness it, by holding back the movie for two years, then dumping it into theaters unheralded. What’s a $42 million loss among friends?
Even so, there are a few fine moments in The Warrior’s Way. It starts well, partly because it starts quietly, somewhere in the glorious Asian Martial Arts Land of olden times, with its poetic Kurosawa rainstorms and endless supply of legendary warriors.
Yang (Korean actor Jang Dong Gun), “The Greatest Swordsman in the History of Mankind,” is achieving his official status by slaying the former Greatest Swordsman in the History of Mankind, who is also the last adult member of an enemy clan. There’s a lone survivor of that clan, an infant girl. The stoic Yang decides not to slaughter her, which makes him a traitor to his own clan of super-killers; they will now relentlessly seek to assassinate him. He escapes with the baby to the new world of the Wild West, where he will face a host of fresh killers along with the old familiar faces.
The action in this opening sequence is beautifully silent, except for a voice-over narrating these events in a nasal, raspy, laconic, philosophical Westerner cadence. This is a pretty clear tribute to the Coen brothers, one of several in the film. That disconcerting frontier tale-telling voice starting up before we know where we are or what we’re looking at is a narrative technique the Coens have deployed in various registers in Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men.
All righty then, South Korean writer-director Sngmoo Lee! You have our attention! Proceed!
But after this promising intro, Lee ruins everything. The tributes and homages come thick and fast in The Warrior’s Way, a million crammed-in references to wuxia and Westerns—it’s evident that Lee’s had a fine education in genre films. But, sadly, he’s also gotten entangled in the worst kind of Euro art film legacy, and he doesn’t know how to value the respective inheritances; probably his NYU film school training messed him up. Lee lets arthouse pomposity and preciousness get the upper hand when he sends his killer, Yang, to the American West and settles him in a desiccated frontier town populated by a troupe of whimsical circus performers.
Not whimsical circus performers! you say. Holy jeez, he doesn’t fuck it up as bad as that!
Oh yes, he does; and there’s no merciful release from them after a scene or two, either. Yang stays in that blasted town with the sad clown and the jolly bearded lady and the fractious dwarf, learning important life lessons about how to have a regular job, and tend a flower garden, and not kill people, for the whole damn film.
For some reason, art film types love whimsical circus folk and raucous old-time acting troupes who travel in caravans—it’s a whole big thing with them, full of significance. Countless art films of the 1950s and ’60s by people like Jean Renoir and Federico Fellini and Marcel Carne and even that old crab Ingmar Bergman, trot them out, and showcase them lovingly, and treat them as repositories of wisdom, and make them stand for things. In such films, when a wandering character comes across a community of circus folk or raucous actors, he’s sitting pretty, because they’ll take him in and show him a hell of a good time—in a wistful, live-affirming, transitory way, of course. It’s not so hot for the audience watching, though.
The taming of Yang unfolds very slowly, you understand, the sheet-washing and flower-growing and spiritual rebirth proceeding with exaggerated, airless, set-bound, green-screened formality. Digital artifice and twee cinematography have joined in unholy matrimony here, so that every shot is designed to be gaped at for its sheer fussiness and grandiosity.
It’s only when you’ve despaired of ever seeing another fight scene in your life that the renegade bad guys show up to terrorize the town.
So you resolutely bracket off the circus mess and try to concentrate on the Western shoot-out of renegades vs. townspeople, but that’s ruined too, because the townsperson leading the fight is a young woman named Lynne (Kate Bosworth) who’s a Calamity Jane-type, a hopeless cornball cliché even more painful than whimsical circus folk. She stomps around in men’s clothes saying she reckons she aims ta kill the Colonel (Danny Huston), the sadistic Civil War vet who heads up the renegades and who murdered her family in a previous rampage through town. She’s coached in her fight skills by Yang, of course, and romance threatens to gum up the works even further.
To put the tin hat on it, Geoffrey Rush is busy hamming it up as the town drunk who, when sober, is actually the fastest gun in the West (yep, ripping off Lee Marvin’s Kid Shaleen character from Cat Ballou).
Meanwhile the hooded swordsmen have amassed somewhere out there, waiting for Yang to start fighting again, as indifferent as we are to this whole frontier circus fiasco. By the time Yang finally gets over his droopy pacifist phase, we forgot why we came into that empty movie theater in the first place, and feel bored and cheated by the carnage. (Though it’s a pleasure to see the circus folk killed. Take that, whimsical acrobat!)
But what can we do? Some of us still need movies. Though we know the cinematic landscape is so blighted and toxic that everyone who wanders out into it is just asking to suffer, we have to totter out there eventually, hoping for a miracle. Remember, True Grit opens right before Christmas! So there is a Santy Claus!
I’ve decided that the emblematic film of our era may be 127 Hours. That’s the one about the guy played by James Franco who’s out in the middle of nowhere with his arm stuck under a rock till he finally hacks it off in order to survive. Let your mind linger on that for a moment. You in the theater staring at James Franco and a rock. 127 movie-hours tick by, with you wondering how much gore and gristle there’ll be when you finally, finally get to the payoff, and knowing there can’t possibly be enough to make up for what preceded it. That title alone is so dreadful, so indicative of how dull and punishing the whole experience of watching it is going to be, it’s like part of a bizarre challenge industry honchos devised a while back, and forgot to announce, that goes like this:
They make the most repellent movies they can think up, and we see if we can stand to watch any of them!
And the kicker is, nobody wins!
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