A Western with Seoul
The Good, The Bad, The Weird, kimchi Western, rated R, in Korean with subtitles, The Screen, 2.5 chiles
The Good, The Bad, The Weird, a Korean shoot-’em-up, is an extreme case of style over substance, but the style is so invigorating — particularly for guys who like cowboy movies — that it’s easy to get carried along in the nonsensical action scenes without giving a lot of thought to the story line behind them.
The title, the plot, and the three main characters — a bounty hunter, a moody killer, and a petty thief — all serve to pay homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti-Western classic The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. This picture even features at least three scenes that are direct copies of bits from Leone’s film. But The Good, The Bad, The Weird out-spaghettis the most action-packed spaghetti Western — to the point of exhaustion. Is it still entertaining in spots? You bet.
Directed and co-written by Kim Jee-Woon, the film is set during the turbulent, lawless 1930s in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. The first action scene, involving the robbery of a train, combines music, sparse dialogue, harsh desert landscapes, and a camera that seems to be perpetually on the run, as if to announce, “We’re going to have fun. Come join us!” Low-level thief Yoon Tae-Goo (The Weird, played by Song Kang Ho) is attempting a one-man robbery of money and jewels from a train carrying lots of Manchurian soldiers and a much-coveted treasure map. When Yoon Tae-Goo gets his mitts on the map, he doesn’t realize what he’s holding in his hands.
But professional killer Park Chang-yi (The Bad, played by Lee Byong Hun) knows the map leads to a big payoff. Aided by a dozen or more ruthless gunmen, he too is plotting a robbery of the train. Meanwhile, bounty hunter Park Do-Won (The Good, played by Jung Woo Sung) is after either The Bad or The Weird, so he boards the train and starts shooting at just about everyone.
In the first 15 minutes, there is a rambunctious train derailment, a succession of gun battles, and a goofy foot chase across the desert, with The Good firing his shotgun at the fast-footed Weird. All this is viewed by a Chinese warlord who wields a mean mace. As he watches this conflict play out from the safety of a nearby hill, he calmly turns to a subordinate to ask, “Any guess on what’s going on here?” For about half of the picture, that question remains unanswered.
Ultimately it becomes obvious that the three protagonists — as well as Japanese soldiers, some shadowy underworld figures, Chinese bandits, and a gang known as the Ghost Market thugs — all want the map. Things get complicated fast, so much so that it gets difficult to distinguish one group of gunmen from another.
“Life is about chasing and being chased,” The Good says at one point — summing up the filmmaker’s intent, as the picture quickly careers from one elaborately staged gunfight and pursuit sequence to another. The fight choreography and stunt work are impressive, though the filmmakers get a little too caught up in using weights, pulleys, ropes, and, in one ingenious bit, a diving helmet (why would there be a diving helmet in the Manchurian desert?) to punctuate the nearly nonstop gunfire. We get eight to 10 minutes of shooting, and then a few minutes of dialogue followed by a scene of people riding across the desert, and then another eight to 10 minutes of shooting, and so on. While a sense of fun pervades much of this action, the film incorporates a few too many unpleasant scenes of violence, and the knifing and carving that takes place around the one-hour mark is particularly unpleasant.
Nevertheless, there is dark humor galore, comic double-takes, at least one eye poke, an agreeable Granny character who hides in the closet while bullets riddle her house, and an off-color bit of business in which a couple of characters die from a sword to the heinie. To top all that off, there is a thrilling, unbelievable climactic battle involving four (or is it five?) sets of rivals, all moving across the desert on horses and jeeps and motorcycles and trucks, blasting away at one another with ruthless abandon. As it moves toward its predictable final duel, The Good, The Bad, The Weird becomes less and less like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and more like Stanley Kramer’s comedic extravaganza It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. With the exception of The Weird, none of the characters are defined well — most of them are just moving targets to be mowed down when the going gets gory. (The horses take quite a beating in this film, by the way, so animal-lovers should take heed. There are a lot of ducks in the film too, mostly acting as extras; but fortunately, nothing bad befalls them.)
But as an example of the cinema of excess, this movie is still a lot more enjoyable to watch than, say, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. And the soundtrack (by Dalparan and Chang Yeong-gyu), with its Spanish guitars, horns, whistling, and Asian surf music, is worth picking up. Play the soundtrack at a party and watch as your guests stop and say, “What the hell is this?” And that’s the kind of approach you better take with you if you see The Good, The Bad, The Weird. It’s a gutsy picture that nonetheless plays itself, its characters, and the viewer out long before the final credits roll.
The magnificent eight (or so); inset, Song Kang Ho