Although it’s more likely to be embraced by fanboys and film buffs than by mainstream audiences, “The Warrior’s Way” is a visually inspired multi-genre amalgamation, a borderline-surreal folly that suggests a martial-arts action-adventure co-directed by Sergio Leone and Federico Fellini. First-time feature helmer Sngmoo Lee, working from his own wildly eclectic screenplay, dawdles during an extended swath of his narrative and doesn’t fully utilize some of his more colorful characters and dramatic conceits. Overall, however, this outlandish concoction appears capable of attracting an appreciative cult on homevid after a modestly lucrative theatrical run.
Pic kicks off with a portentous bit of gray-toned, slo-mo carnage, briskly establishing the lethally graceful prowess of Yang (Korean superstar Jang Dong-gun), a master assassin bent on slicing and dicing his way through the remnants of a rival clan. But he can’t quite finish the job when he confronts the sole survivor, an irresistibly cute baby girl who melts the heart of the cold-blooded killer. In a cheeky hat-tip to the “Lone Wolf and Cub” Japanese pics and mangas of the 1970s, Yang takes the newborn along as he departs his homeland for America with his former mentor, Saddest Flute (Ti Lung), and a hundred or so other assassins in relentless pursuit.
Yang’s travels bring him to Lode, a decrepit Southwest desert town dominated by an under-construction Ferris wheel — which, thanks to lenser Kim Woo-hyung and production designer Dan Hennah, serves as almost a full-fledged supporting player — and populated mostly by career-stalled traveling carnival performers. Pint-sized ringmaster Eight Ball (Tony Cox of “Bad Santa” fame) warmly greets Yang and his infant companion, but others in town — including the chronically soused Ron (Geoffrey Rush) — are more reluctant to welcome the newcomers.
Yang ingratiates himself by learning to operate the long-shuttered local laundry with a little help from Lynne (Kate Bosworth), a tomboyish beauty who in turn seeks Yang’s help in mastering the art of knife-throwing. Lynne hopes that someday, she’ll be able to eradicate the savagely violent Colonel (Danny Huston) who murdered her family years earlier.
Filmed almost entirely on New Zealand studio sets, “The Warrior’s Way” transports auds to a familiar yet fantastical world where, through various forms of CGI wizardry, every sunset is a crimson spectacle and a ramshackle desert town is brightened by the trappings of a gone-to-seed circus. Lee takes maybe a smidge too much time charting the chaste romantic attraction between Yang and Lynne, and surrounds these attractive opposites with vivid supporting characters who don’t always get the screen time they deserve. The body count doesn’t start to mount until the halfway point, and steadily escalates through the final 40 minutes of vidgame-style gunplay and sword-swinging.
The rough-and-tumble mayhem is suitably kinetic, but the film is just as enjoyable in scenes focusing on Yang’s gradual acceptance by a community of eccentrics (think Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales”) and his initially wary interactions with the uninhibited Lynne. Jang provides more of a presence than a performance as Yang expresses himself with a minimum of dialogue (the actor’s command of English is adequate to the task at hand), but neatly balances stoic reserve, physicality and sly bemusement.
Bosworth is amusing in her flirtatious scenes with Yang, and passably convincing as Lynne doles out rough justice in pic’s final third. Huston often seems to be channeling the spirit, or at least the distinctive voice, of his iconic father, John Huston, while expressing the Colonel’s lip-smacking devilry. Rush earns easy laughs with his character’s drunken foolishness, but becomes far more interesting when Ron reveals his own capacity for violence.
Tech values are everything they need to be for the film to work as an over-the-top kung-fu Western romantic fairy tale. Javier Navarrete’s clever, multifarious musical score encompasses everything from grand opera to slide guitar, from Ennio Morricone-like themes to the jaunty nautical standard (“The Sailor’s Hornpipe”) that many auds will recognize from “Popeye” cartoons of the 1930s.