|Rated "R" for strong bloody (stylized) violence.|
This film is decidedly not for kids.
The story begins somewhere in Generic East Asia. The main character is played Dong-gun Jang (a South Korean superstar), his mentor is played by a Chinese actor, and the costume design and architecture looked vaguely Japanese, so more specificity is impossible. Our hero is on a quest to become The Greatest Swordsman in the World, a task which apparently involves fighting through waves of ninja henchman, dispatching the previous Greatest Swordsman (helpfully identified by subtitles), and finally killing a baby girl. It's not entirely clear how that last task is even relevant. Luckily, our laconic hero has a conscience, spares the child, and becomes a fugitive pursued by his own clan. Considering this clan consists of hordes of intimidating black-swathed ninja assassins, it's more than a little underwhelming when we learn that the clan is named "The Sad Flutes."
Our hero winds us in America, in a mostly deserted carnival town somewhere in the Badlands. The film soon introduces us to the One True Love, played by Kate Bosworth. In a note of striking originality, this is the one romantic lead in an action film that has grown up with loving parents, without any traumatic events in her life, and with the full hope and expectation of finding true love any day now. Right. What are the odds? Anyway, our laconic hero settles into his new life, becomes the town's resident gardener and laundryman (no really), and falls in love with the jaded femme fatale. These events are accompanied by blitheringly obvious narration ("He learned that it was better to create beauty... than to cut it down") provided by the town drunk, played by "Pirates of the Caribbean" actor Geoffrey Rush.
Trouble arises, as trouble is wont to do. The town is terrorized by "The Colonel" -- a lascivious tyrant with facial disfigurement (covered a la "Phantom of the Opera") and a thing for clean teeth. In order to defeat him and his roguish henchmen, the laconic swordsman is obliged to bring out his weapon and smite them down. Unfortunately, this particular sword is like a homing beacon for ninja assassins, and so they soon arrive to join in the fun and games.
In the wake of "The Matrix," "Hero" and "300," it's hard to even imagine a film that can bring some originality in its depictions of stylized violence. This film succeeds, especially in a much-praised scene where the swordsman dispatches the guards outside the Colonel's hotel room. The sudden darkness, the strobe-light effects of the bullet holes in the walls, and the frame-by-frame detailing of the action are impressive and effective.
The greatest virtue of this film is in the visuals. It was shot entirely against green-screen, so even in scenes of excruciatingly dull dialogue, you are constantly being taken in by the magnificent vistas and breath-taking landscapes. Even in the midst of violence, the film relishes in moments of genuine beauty.
Sadly, these moments are marred and married to other moments that aren't so beautiful. For instance, the ending is simply awful. The swordsman is told throughout the film that his nature attracts danger and would put those he loves in harm's way. So, by the end of the film, having defeated all enemies, there is no catharsis, no realization that here at last he can find peace. The hero simply decides to walk off into the sunset alone, leaving the baby girl and his one true love behind him. The film ends... then resumes after several long seconds of darkness and silence to show him fending off ninjas in some arctic wasteland. He brandishes his sword, jumps in the air to cleave the first of his enemies... and then the film ends again. I kid you not.
More generally, the love story is hackneyed, the jokes fall flat, and the characterizations are almost painful. Dong-gun Jang speaks his few lines with all the laconic depth of wet cement, while Kate Bosworth goes all out with the "aw-shucks" Southern belle style of over-acting. The script is as monotonous as I imagine life in a deserted carnival town in the Badlands would actually be like, so in that sense the film was very realistic. Only the action scenes and the backgrounds could redeem this film, but not even they are sufficient to warrant praise. The film kept my interest through its run time, but I still wouldn't recommend it to others.