The first scene of “The Warrior’s Way,” from first-time writer and director Sngmoo Lee, sets up an action-packed modern martial-arts film. The dark cinematography and stylized, comic book-like animation create a captivating atmosphere as black-robed swordsmen explode out of the mist to attack the hero, Yang (Jang Dong Gun, “The Promise”), who coolly cuts them down with the deft precision of a practiced warrior. It’s exciting, original and sets a high standard. But as the film progresses, it feels like this opening belongs to another film.

“The Warrior’s Way”

At Quality 16 and Rave
Rogue

“The Warrior’s Way”

At Quality 16 and Rave
Rogue

After his anonymous foes have been felled, Yang, who the audience learns is the best swordsman in the world, is confronted with a decision: Should he follow through with his orders and kill the last surviving member of a rival clan, who happens to be a baby?

Of course, our merciful hero refuses to commit such a base act, even after having murdered the baby’s entire family. Instead, he absconds with the infant to a small town in the American West, his own clan in hot, vengeful pursuit. Unfortunately, it takes them almost the entire movie to find him, leaving the film’s middle third nearly devoid of action.

The premise of the movie is thin and the plot even thinner, supported by lifeless, clichéd writing and caricatured roles. Kate Bosworth (“21”) plays Lynne, the local circus’s knife thrower with a troubled, bloody past — an outlaw named “The Colonel” (Danny Huston, “Robin Hood”), whose appearance provides the only action in the movie’s middle third, killed her family when she was a girl. The relationship between Lynne and Yang is formulaic and entirely unconvincing, and their love story, which dominates half of the movie, lacks vitality.

“The Warrior’s Way” shines in the fight sequences. They are beautifully shot and intricately choreographed, often with ballet-like grace. These scenes move at a quick and energetic pace, and have a highly nuanced visual style, including tasteful use of slow motion and creative effects, like an extreme close-up of a sword slicing through rain drops and strobe light-like stop motion. It’s clear Lee is a talented director with a specific vision and an eye for action.

Unfortunately, the movie fails on almost every other level. The acting, despite an impressive performance by what has to be the best baby actor in the world, is generally laughable, with Bosworth’s performance being particularly lackluster. Dong Gun’s performance also lacks vigor, which is partly due to his character’s stoicism; he rarely speaks, even during the emotional love scenes. Geoffrey Rush (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series), who plays the town drunk, gives the movie’s best performance, but his character is such a cliché that no level of acting can save it.

“Warrior’s Way” also ostensibly explores the similarities between Eastern samurai beliefs and the values of the old American West. However, the filmmaker handles these themes clumsily, just adding clutter to an already unfocused movie. The references to the two philosophies are too overt to be effective and don’t fit with the movie’s tone.

The movie, like many fantasy films, takes place in a sort of alternate universe, where hordes of flying ninjas descend upon Old West towns and cowboys wield automatic machine guns. However absurd this seems at first blush, it works when the movie gives itself over entirely to its own absurdity. Even the non-fight scenes that are shot in this style are entrancing and fun to watch. But whenever the film moves away from its fantasy sensibility, either to comedy or romance, it loses energy.

The final battle scene is epic and intense, but not worth the hour-long build up. Watching Yang annihilate the droves of faceless warriors, one can’t help but feel disappointed knowing that the whole movie could have been like this, rather than another tired entry in the annals of Hollywood action-romances.

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