The ninjas-go-to-Tombstone slice-’em-up The Warrior’s Way (Relativity Media) feels like it was conceived by a fifth-grade boy given free rein to write about his favorite things. There’s a dagger-throwing lady and a clown and a samurai warrior and cowboys and dynamite and guns and a drunk guy whose pants fall down and a dwarf named 8-Ball and then the bad guys come and the ninjas start to fly and there’s blood everywhere and it’s all in slow motion and it’s totally awesome. Well, not quite. The Warrior’s Way never achieves awesomeness, mostly because it never fully embraces its elementary-school playground aesthetic.
The movie’s opening scene introduces us to ninja-assassin Yang (Jang Dong-Gun, a Korean star in his Hollywood debut). According to on-screen bubble letters, he’s “The Greatest Swordsman in the History of Mankind Ever.” While Yang lives up to his moniker—he slays his adversaries so quickly that he’s either mind-blowingly amazing with a sword or the other warriors went to a non-accredited ninja academy—the “Greatest Swordsman” gewgaw never appears again, nor does any other bubble-lettered flourish. It’s a telling discontinuity in a movie that never finds a consistent tone, oscillating between self-conscious ridiculousness and unwarranted seriousness of purpose.
Why so serious? Yang, who says little and emotes less, wields his weapon on behalf of the Sad Flutes, a cadre of assassins on a mission to kill every last ninja in a rival clan. The Greatest Swordsman stops the slaughter when the Flutes have just one foe remaining, a pudgy-cheeked newborn princess who’s just too adorable to vivisect. Rather than commit infanticide, he bundles up the little girl and takes her to America, where he hopes to reconnect with an old friend and leave his stabbing ways behind. Yang’s destination is a desiccated circus town replete with a bearded lady, a dwarf ( Bad Santa’s Tony Cox, in a role as thankless as you can imagine), and a floppy drunk (Geoffrey Rush, who spends much of the movie with the Old West equivalent of plumber’s butt). In this land of carnival clichés, Yang meets a dagger thrower named Lynne (Kate Bosworth) with a similarly troubled soul. After the samurai seals his sword, he teaches the Badlands lass some knife tricks, tends a garden, reopens his friend’s laundry, and, most harrowing of all, learns to change a diaper.
First-time writer and director Sngmoo Lee, who was born in Korea and went to film school in the United States, conceived of The Warrior’s Way more than a decade ago, when he lived in New York. “Most of the laundry franchises [in America] were run by Korean men. They’re just ‘Mr. Lee, the laundry guy,’ ” he explained in a recent interview. “I think that was the beginning: What if that laundry man was the deadliest assassin?”
While Lee’s intention might be to rescue Asian men from anonymity, The Warrior’s Way succeeds in perpetuating a different stereotype—Koreans can be laundry guys, ninjas, or both! Yang is the same inscrutable, Far Eastern warrior that we’ve seen in movies for 100 years, dispensing Miyagi-esque advice—”I just taught you how to focus,” he explains to Lynne after forcing her to heave knives while blindfolded—to a less cosmically attuned Western pupil. Just as annoying and predictable is the sexless relationship between the romantic leads. While we’re supposed to believe that Yang and Lynne are in love, they never steal away for a romp under the rickety old Ferris wheel. But at least there’s a non-steamy kiss—an improvement over the “tight hug” shared by Aaliyah and Jet Li at the conclusion of 2000’s Romeo Must Die.
The presence of a romantic arc, chaste or otherwise, is a signal that The Warrior’s Way went way off track. Despite the overabundant, Super Nintendo-quality CGI—by all rights, the green-screen operator should get first billing—this could have been a riotous, overcaffeinated genre mash-up. Instead, the answer to the only question anyone really cares about—Who wins a three-way fight between ninjas, cowboys, and dynamite-wielding carnies?—comes far too late for any thrills. Next time, let the fifth-grader direct.