Saturday, July 12, 2014

Saving Warrior's Way

Neither here nor there, up or down, but I finally saw that bizarre Koren/NZ action film The Warrior's Way. I'm not bragging when I say I could have saved that movie from ignominy.  Most of the rest of us could have done the same as well, but I'm the only one talking about it. I will tell you straight up how, call them The Four Sacred Secrets of how to save The Warrior's Way: over-the-top Anime doesn't work in live action, voice-over is only effective if making The Seventh Seal or a hardboiled detective movie, everyone hates effortless success, begin in the goddamned middle. One other thing, so maybe it's Five Secrets: cliches about ninjas are boring - true shadow warriors would adopt the latest killing technology.

First, this movie is a failure, a serious fuck-up from the dimension of epic fuck-ups. It grossed - grossed, mind you, I'll explain in a second - a little over $11 million on a $42 million budget. It's even worse than it sounds. The movie gross is divided up between the theaters and the distributor, which means only $5.5 million started its way back to the investors. Add the costs of distribution and marketing, which can be upwards of half or more of the production costs, and you have a return of $5.5 million on an investment of around $63 - 70 million. That isn't ordinary fail. Fail that heavy distorts spacetime. A tiny fraction of this is made back through DVD/blueray/streaming sales and broadcast fees from cable TV. But still, not enough to prevent the collapse of reality near the event horizon of this loser.

But it didn't have to be this way.

First, decide what you're going to make. You wanna make an anime, good for you, I love anime...only thing is, anime is animation, not live action. Even then, there's a big difference between the conventions of anime made for television, mostly serialized, and film anime. What works for Naruto or Bleach ain't gonna play in say, a Ghost in the Shell movie. The problems only multiply when trying to take Naruto into the realm of live action. Much of Warrior's Way reminds me of the "It's Raining Men" trailer for Kung Fu Hustle. This obvious attempt at replicating the antics of a fantasy anime TV show just won't play when real human beings are in frame. Ever since Stephen Chow started lampooning wire-work in his satiric kung fu movies, to do such things with a straight face is...well...ludicrous. Keep in mind, most of the people who will see a movie have already seen hundreds of movies and TV shows in their lives - and that's only the deprived. People who will go to see a movie like Warrior's Way will have seen most of Stephen Chow's movies, they'll have watched Naruto as kids, they'll be tuned into the joke. I just saw Warrior's Way on cable TV, but I can imagine what I would have heard in a movie theater: "Fuck, if I wanted to watch shit like this, I could have done that watching TV for free." Let me say it in all caps just to get my point across: THE CONVENTIONS OF TV ANIME JUST DON'T WORK IN A LIVE ACTION MOTION PICTURE! Don't do this. You wanna make a movie inspired by Naruto, do it as an animation. Maybe that's a little over the top, there is one way this could have worked. Hire Stephen Chow and make an action comedy farce.

Another related point before moving on: anyone else ever see one of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies, or read one of the Lone Wolf and Cub comics? I don't mind the idea of a man and the child/baby he's protecting on the run from assassins being used in Warrior's Way, it's just, by using a trope so familiar to fans of martial arts and action movies, you are going to create expectations. By making the movie the way he did, the director/writer Sngmoo Lee set himself up for failure. Know what you're doing. If you don't, this is what happens.

Second, narration, really? If your name isn't Billy Wilder I really wouldn't try it. Voiceover narration works well in noir, in crime dramas, in very serious films, and occasionally comedies or action comedies - the protagonist's narration in the first Kick-Ass worked pretty well. But it's a crutch when most other filmmakers use it, a cheap way of telling the story without having to actually think about what is the best way to tell the story. Just slap a voiceover on to explain shit that doesn't need to be explained in the first place, or that can be explained by the protagonist later in the film, or by a flashback. It hurts more than it helps in most instances. In Warrior's Way, which is essentially a flashy remake of an episode from Lone Wolf and Cub, it only drags on the audience as a frequent, unnecessary infodump. This is the truth at the core of narrations. When it provides insight into the character, necessary information, or entertainment, it's a welcome addition to the film. When it's not, and 99% of the time it's not, it's a crutch used by a bad storytellers to inflict unnecessary information on the audience.

Just had a thought. Given that the writer/director Mr. Lee has zero credits to his name and his only claim to fame, he has a master’s degree in cinema studies from New York University and helped found the film department at the Korean National University of Arts. Is it possible that the original screenplay was a vanity project that had lain fallow in the Wasteland of Discarded Ideas, only to be discovered by some idiot fifteen years after it was written? If this movie had been made back around 1998, before wire-fu and the endless homage to Hong Kong fight movies that was Kill Bill, yeah, it might have made its money back. Probably not, though.

Third, everyone hates effortless success. In some of the action sequences, we don't even see how the hero, the lone assassin Yang, defeats his opponents. Happens behind a screen, flash cut and they're dead, whoosh, magic sword death. Smoke and dust, dead. Yang kills hundreds with the effortlessness of a sociopathic child killing ants. Compare this to the master swordsman Kyuzo from Seven Samurai. He undertakes a solo infiltration mission in which he kills three bandits and steals one of the muskets. When he returns, he is breathless and sweaty. Early in the movie, we see how he can kill so effortlessly, he practices constantly. Even goddamned Naruto is constantly practicing and being tested by his instructors. Yang has no such mortal concerns as practice or fatigue, he is apparently some sort of god, able to wave his sword in the air without effort, killing millions with a thought. It gets boring after a while. If we know he won't have to struggle or fight, that he merely shows up to win, where's the fun in watching that? This flaw incapacitates an action movie, making what should be thrilling into an exercise akin to chewing gum...flavorless, tasteless gum.

Fourth - I switched up here - ninjas are boring. Seriously boring. Their standard tropes are on display in this movie: they arrive in vast herds, they are relentless, for some reason they charge straight at people, they only use swords and shuriken, and no matter how many are portrayed as arriving, there are even more hiding away somewhere nearby. The hero can kill millions, yet millions more appear by magic. How about a more sinister portrayal, which also happens to be closer to reality. According to one myth, a ninja with a poisoned spear huddled in a shit-filled cesspit for days in order to stab a great lord in the rectum. Another used poison in a prince's food. Another supposedly used a primitive hand grenade. Others used firearms. Then there are the myths that ninja practiced black magic, could change shape like werewolves, had the allegiance of demons. But even here, someone else has been there first, as anyone who is a fan of anime can attest. How about no more ninjas? To action filmmakers everywhere, use your fucking imaginations. No more Jason Bournes, no more ninjas.

Fifth, don't start at the beginning. We had to sit through interminable narration while watching just how Yang met the baby, why he did what he did, why he ended up in the old town out west. Who cares? SHOW US why we should care by starting in the middle, then building the story out from there. Start when he arrives in the town. Make the local bad guy into a corrupt sheriff instead of a supervillain leading innumerable witless minions. I'm not asking that Warrior's Way be made into a serious drama, I'm asking for minimal competence in storytelling. START IN THE MIDDLE. It's called IN MEDIA RES. Use it.

"Who the fuck are these guys?" See the magic of In Media Res? It creates an environment in which only the protagonist knows things, everyone else is in the dark. Jokes, serious dramatic moments, all sorts of humor, and action sequences can roll out of this disparity like fruit out of a cornucopia. Just one of the gifts from the storytelling device that keeps on giving. For instance, I'm convinced that the Conan reboot movies failed because they started from the beginning. Even the creator of Conan, Robert E. Howard, didn't do that. His first story featuring the Cimmerian started at the height of Conan's career, when he was king of Aquilonia. His second Conan story featured his hero as a young thief. Only the third story goes back to Conan's youth, and even then he's a teenager.

What did I like about this movie? I really liked the 1900 steampunk elements - cowboy bad guys with machineguns - I liked the failed amusement park in a decaying town in the middle of nowhere with a  troupe of stranded carnival workers stuck there - so reminiscent of the actual decayed remains of failed theme parks scattered all over the USA, not only the USA, but in Japan, China, everywhere. I like the idea of the hardcore killer learning to be an ordinary human being - and enjoying the process of becoming quotidian. But the rest, meh, I can watch an episode of Naruto and get the same.

This applies to all action movies, so go forth, make a film, and entertain me!