REVIEW: Udon Western The Warrior's Way Mingles Genres to Great Effect
A pain in the ass for someone with a job to do, films that open without screening for critics usually draw one of two responses: 1. Yes, that was probably a wise decision; or 2. Have a little faith, studio chickens! I'm not sure how a system that's pushing Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford's upcoming Cowboys and Aliens would assume that critics won't get a film like The Warrior's Way; it's been a mad, mixed-up genre world for some time now. Yet if writer/director Sngmoo Lee's feature debut isn't the first revisionist udon western, surely it will wind up being close to the only one. A shame, in a way, because I suspect a little company would only confirm that it's also one of the best.
"We will never know the extent of the damage movies are doing to us," Pauline Kael wrote in the 1970s, grappling with her response to the increase in graphic onscreen violence. "But movie art, it appears, thrives on moral chaos." A sober, searching theory, and yet the ecstatic violence in The Warrior's Way offers a less dire possibility: What movies seem to have done to Sngmoo Lee is soak into his cerebral cortex, where their tropes and signifiers have mingled and mutated, reduced to their aesthetic essence rather than their gratuitous, desensitizing potential. His ode to wuxia and Westerns suggests a director getting extensive, extended kicks by mashing genres not from an academic remove but by hand, and with glee.
The result is way out there -- so far that you won't quite recognize the terrain, and still feel strangely at home. The look has the impossible feel of a CGI soundstage: Not cheap, not even necessarily fake, just... weird. The film opens with the sanctification of Yang (Dong-gun Jang) as "The Greatest Swordsman in the History of Mankind." An assassin who kills old ladies between sips of tea, he has his heart tweaked by an infant whose parents he has just filleted. He heads out on a lonesome journey, knowing his own clan will not forgive him for harboring an enemy, no matter how well she wears a onesie. Yang is a cinematic archetype so self-reflexive he even pauses to contemplate his title as it appears on the screen. So it follows that his trek into unknown territory might lead him into not just a new world but a whole new genre.
The delineation is made clear: Lee contrasts the oily blacks of Matrix-inflected martial-arts action with the red dust of a failing frontier town, where Yang finds Lynne (Kate Bosworth) and the circus that stopped by and never left. Lynne has her own creation myth, and it involves a pervert Colonel (Danny Huston) and his posse riding into town for a little action. His attempted rape of Lynne as a young girl led to his disfigurement and the death of her family. The mystical stranger puts her through the kind of self-defense course they don't teach at the Y; he learns from her the joys of growing things (and cleaning them; he becomes the town launderer) instead of slicing the life out of them. He seals up his weapon (steady!), lest his enemies hear the sword crying with the souls of his victims. The poker-faced wuxia warrior has to play by the rules of the morally reconstructed, vaguely asexual Western hero; it's no wonder he looks confused.
It's hashy and broad and full of beans, but the mark of Lee's humor and affection for his material (Shane and Unforgiven figure heavily) is evident in his ability to configure clichés into something new. Striking on a flavor that's wonky but not empty and self-conscious yet appealingly sincere is not as simple as dumping incongruous ingredients into the pot; it's all in the simmer. The climactic battle suggests the success of the dish, and finds some of the more piquant aesthetic similarities between shootouts and shoguns by mapping out their differences -- literally: Yang's clan drops in for a visit just as the townspeople (including a drunkard marksman played with pickled relish by Geoffrey Rush) are gaining ground in their spectacular defensive operation against the Colonel and his massive crew, who come back for more. Lee revels in the poetry of carnage -- movie carnage -- and despite 360 splatter shots and bouquets of severed heads somehow makes it all seem more kiss-kiss, bang-bang than damaged, or damaging.