Warrior’s Way

So, I promised / threatened to review Warrior’s Way. And I figure now, approximately one million years after anyone could possibly care, is as good a time as any.

I’ll start with the good stuff because, hey, I’m not just hatin’ to hate and here’s the proof.

So, I’m not exactly a connoisseur of kung fu action films, but I likes ’em. And, y’know, I’m totally on board for accepting some roughness around the edges of these movies. Particularly when it comes to the lead character who, more often than not, is played buy a dude cast for his martial ability and not his acting ability. Plus there’s generally a language barrier if the film was a Hollywood joint. And that encourages a whole lotta Strong Silent Types who Don’t Speak Much English or Do Much Acting.

And I’m cool with that. We’re not here for nuance, we want blood.

But due to what I can only assume to be a miraculous confluence between script, director, and casting about as rare as a total alignment of all the planets in the Solar System, Dong-gun Jang’s performance as Yang, the Strong Silent Assassin Who Don’t Speak Much English Or Do Much Acting, is incredibly charming and natural. Someone finally figured out how to take what is ordinarily a cliche weakness of films like this, run with it, and deliver something much better than we could have expected.

The film goes out of its way to make sure we know Yang is yet another boilerplate Silent / No Emoting lead before it lets some of the supporting cast have fun with that. They don’t rush to these moments, or over sell them, so clever and talented people were definitely involved in this thing. Yang is emotionally distant and hardly speaks English, but with Dong-gun behind the role we feel like those qualities exist because they make sense for the character and not because they’re merely convenient for the production. It comes as no surprise now to learn Dong-gun is a hell of a popular actor over in his homeland of Korea and throughout Asia.

What else? The action sequences are very well done. There’s a variety and a brutality to the violence that never goes overboard. Yang is covered in the blood of his slain enemies for much of the third act, but there isn’t an ounce of gratuitous gore in the film. A tough balance to strike when people are being shot, stabbed, and slashed in half for 30 minutes straight.

Other than that? The rest of the cast does fine. I could’ve used a more interesting villain than Colonel Rapesalot, but maybe that’s a personal gripe.

The movie’s real problem is structure. I find myself increasingly aware of failures in structure — in all media but especially in movies — the longer I work on highly structured narratives.

With comic books, we have 22 pages, or 20 if you’re reading a Corporate Book these days, and you need to tell a complete story in that time. Oh, it can be part of a larger story, in fact it almost certainly should be. But if you don’t have an interesting hook in the beginning that leads to a compelling conflict that gets resolved (ideally while developing into a cliffhanger that’ll dovetail into the hook of the next issue) by that last page, you’re doing it wrong wrong wrong.

It takes Warrior’s Way like an hour to get to the action. An hour? In a movie called Warrior’s Way? With a trailer that was 95% ninjas jumping, slicing, or dying?

Nope, wrong!

An inordinate amount of time is spent showing us Yang’s history as an assassin, his deal with the baby, and their exodus to the American West. They were clever enough to handle much of this via voice over and montage to cut to just the essential info and imagery, but I’ll explain later how even this took too long.

Okay, so Yang finally makes it to Lode, a dead boomtown lookin’ place, and settles down. But then the movies takes entirely too long to tell us about Lode, its ex-carnie citizens, their aspirations, their interactions with Yang, the fall from grace shared by both the town and its citizens, and how that ties in with the love interest and the bandits…all without explaining how the hell these people stayed there. Not even the “why,” which also goes unanswered, the how.

They have no well, no irrigation, no river, no crops, no food, no livestock, no rail, no trade with settlements that might provide these necessities, and no industry save for Yang’s laundry which goes through a tremendous amount of water to wash the linens and clothes of everyone in town who never wear anything but filthy rags and are way too interested in the act of laundering in the first place when you consider they have not eaten a single meal in at least ten years.

You might even give all that a pass were it not for the subplot about Yang planting seeds and tending a garden (with bucket loads of water from nowhere). The townsfolk warn him the land is barren and it’s a futile effort so it can be a “subtle” metaphor when his garden is miraculously vital, and then a super subtle metaphor when the bandits trample it later on.

What does he grow for these starving people? Flowers. Instead of, I don’t know, any food.

This all comes back to the structure. The movie’s structure is just bad. We spent way too much time setting up all the necessary elements, and the set up itself is riddled by logical inconsistencies.

Here’s what the filmmakers wanted:

A Lone Wolf and Cub thing, only with a Chinese assassin.
And in the Old West
He meets a bunch of colorful circus folk
Among them is the love interest
Chinese Lone Wolf’s clan of assassins are hunting him for not killing Chinese Cub
Old West bandits

It’s a short list! There is no way it should’ve taken us 40 – 60 minutes to throw those things at the audience.

Here’s how it should have gone.

Start with Yang walking off the boat in San Francisco. His only luggage is a baby that he’s totally carrying as if it’s luggage and a bundle that we’ll soon learn holds his sword.

He’s a stranger in a strange land, quickly runs afoul of some local assholes, say in a bar or public space, and quickly defuses the situation via his borderline supernatural kung fu. Members of the circus, definitely including the love interest, are involved in this altercation (possibly the focus of it) and ask him to join their traveling circus since he has marketable skills for it. Yang has no real destination in mind, goes with the flow, and joins the circus. Five minutes.

We then montage up the next few weeks, possibly months, as they travel from San Francisco across the West. They visit a few cities, have lots of time to show us the circus folk, their interactions with Yang, how Yang improves their lives and vice versa, lots of face time with the love interest, through whom we have plenty of opportunities to learn a little (but only a little) about his storied past, and definitely reveal the sword. Fifteen more minutes.

All the while, 1) the circus folk are talking up the final town of their route, Lode. It’s a boomtown and people are are quick to spend money on ridiculous shit like the circus. This town alone makes the whole trip worth it. Maybe throw in some crap about how Love Interest’s family is a big deal in Lode. Dad’s the Mayor or something. Another five minutes.

And 2) Yang’s assassin clan are hunting him down. You only need glimpses of them on his trail to figure it out, but we’ll be generous and dedicate another five minutes.

Yang and the circus finally reach Lode and it’s damn near in ruins because bandits have it under siege. Yang and the circus folk have to free the people of Lode, including Love Interest’s family, against the ticking time bomb of the inevitable invasion of an assassin army.

There, what took Warrior’s Way an hour to do has just been cut to 30 minutes tops. And, I might add, without introducing that host of incongruities, re: water, food, laundry, filthy.

And less rapey. Always a plus.