It's Cowboys vs. Ninjas in this fantastical exercise in martial arts magical un-realism. But Korean swordsman Dong-gun Jang has a simmering charisma and a great hair stylist. And the thing is played for laughs, or was edited for laughs after the studio realized what writer-director Sngmoo Lee had delivered.
Jang plays an assassin who has all but wiped out a rival clan. Then a cute baby stops him in his tracks, and he saves it and flees to the West — the Old West — to hide.
He ends up in Lode, “The Paris of the West,” essentially the dusty leftover sets from Book of Eli, augmented by more green-screen landscapes than 300 and Sin City put together. Our assassin ends up running — wait for it — a Chinese laundry.
The fetching Lily, a girl with a tortured past — she literally was tortured — shows the new fellow she calls “Skinny” around Lode, which is peopled with circus folk who hope the Ferris Wheel they haven't quite finished will bring the town back to life. Lily, by the way, is played by eye candy Kate Bosworth, drawling as though she's auditioning for a dinner theater tour of Steel Magnolias
“Dang,” says she. “You're slower'n molasses in January.”
But Skinny is anything but slow when he whips out his “weeping sword.” Which he doesn't, because the zing of it being unsheathed will be heard by the Sad Flutes clan, who will Ninja down on him like a ton of Chinese laundry when he gives away his position.
Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, who may very well get another nomination for his work in The King's Speech, is slumming here as the town drunk, and a not very amusing one at that.
What is amusing is the baby Skinny must protect. The child's reactions to fights, stunts, and simple goings-on get a laugh every time. Not nearly as funny — Danny Huston, looking more like his Basset Hound-faced dad John Huston with every sadistic villain he plays. He's the Colonel, the marauder who leads a gang into town every so often for a little rape and pillaging. And more rape. And wisecracks.
Lily listens to opera on her dad's old Victrola and trains for the knife-fight finale, the drunk waits to reveal his hidden skills, and Skinny does laundry, waiting for that day when he can defy gravity and leap through hordes of villains waving his sword, his perfect coiffure billowing in the slo-mo breeze, leaving only the crimson mist of arterial spray behind. The action bits are stylized and kind of cool, and the charismatic Jang pulls them off with aplomb.
Yeah, it's nuts. No, it's not that much fun. Action comedy, Asian sword-slasher pic, or martial arts mystical mumbo jumbo, this warrior never quite finds his way.