“Life is about chasing and being chased.” –Kang-ho Song, The Weird
To even mention that The Good The Bad The Weird (Jee-Woon Kim, 2008) is a “Kimchee Western” spin on the quintessential Spaghetti Western, The Good The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1967) is obvious and boring. So let’s just skip those comparisons and move on. Jee-Woon Kim spent more than two years in production with GBW and with budget estimates ranging from $10,000,000 to $17,000,000 it ranks as one of the most expensive films in Korean history (although word is spreading that The Fast and The Furious director Rob Cohen has plans for a U.S./South Korea coproduction costing well north of $100,000,000—take that world cinema!). It’s an Epic worthy of its moniker, and delivers on the thrills in an entertaining fashion where most contemporary American Westerns seem more interested in engaging you with gloomy morality plays.
The first words from the film shouted at the audience are “PAY ATTENTION!” as a presumably nefarious official hires Byung-hun Lee’s The Bad to steal a treasure map from a Japanese envoy traveling by train across Manchuria. Yes, it signifies that you can’t just sit back and cook pasta from the kitchen while The Good The Bad The Weird plays in the background; since there’s an abundance of plot and character to sift through in those first thirty minutes, but you should not fret about this being a dense period melodrama. Just as you’ve hit fifteen minutes of dialog or character construction, the movie hits you with some serious squibby shoot outs with characters swinging from scaffoldings guns’ a blazing. And as much as I love how Jee-Woon Kim’s camera knows how to rest, it also knows when to spin frantically about the set-pieces, ducking and weaving with the fireworks. Again, The Good The Bad The Weird is the type of kinetic action film you just don’t see from this genre anymore in the States…the last admirable attempts were Young Guns (Christopher Cain, 1988) or the 3:10 To Yuma remake (James Mangold, 2007)—and yes, the less said about American Outlaws (Les Mayfield, 2001) the better.
The three archetypes are introduced in action aboard the Manchurian train. The Weird, played by Kang-ho Song, marches down the aisle pretending to sell rice cakes before gunning down a stunned collection of Japanese soldiers. He steals a treasure map from The Official just before The Bad and his gang drive the train from its rails. Materializing via a close-up of his double-barreled shotgun pressed against the temple of a train-robbing thug, Woo-sung Jung’s The Good is dressed in proper heroic style, his duster and bandana not nearly as intimidating as the scattershot propelling nameless villains through train walls. It’s a rousing, claustrophobic action sequence that sets up the basic find-the-gold plot, and as the 2 hour runtime ticks by you’ll get more info on the Free Korea movement, the Ghost Market turf war, and something about a serial killer known as “The Finger Chopper.” But the details don’t really matter. This film is all about the bullets and the three triggermen.
My favorite character in the whole flick is easily Kang-ho Song’s The Weird, and he’s not as weird as you’re probably expecting or maybe even hoping. Having consumed other popular puddle jumpers, The Host (Joon-ho Bong, 2006) and Thirst (Chan-wook Park, 2009), I’m used to a somber, doomed-expression Song. But The Weird is a jittery quick-draw chatterer who begins the film as comic relief, but eventually finds most of the plot and subplot resting on his shoulders. His goldlust tells him that the map will lead to Qing Dynasty buried treasure and his ease on the trigger is tied to a desire to raise his bounty to something more expensive than a piano. But as mysteries and origins are explored, roles get expanded and reversed. The film’s namesake demands that Mexican Standoff climax, and his side of the triangle concludes with the most narrative depth.
And Song is not the only one who gets the chance to chew the scenery. Byung-hun Lee’s The Bad is all about jet-black anime hair and the stinging, seriously evil eyes of Storm Shadow (and this time, hopefully, he’ll get a real chance at villainy in Justin Lin’s upcoming GI Joe: Retaliation). It’s a cinematic fact that bad guys have the most fun on screen, and there’s a serious hoot to be had in reveling at The Bad’s cold executions of stray civilians and merciless torture of The Weird’s Ghost Market compadre. Lee spits his curses with contempt, completes his kills with a gleaming, quiet smile, and is rewarded with lurking character complexities.
But If I had one serious complaint about the film it’s that Woo-sung Jung’s The Good is a frustratingly underplayed/underwhelming character. He’s the badass and sometimes badasses get the short end of the character development stick. Sure, he’s got plenty of tough guy one-liners, and he’s got Eastwood’s cheroots but after he’s blasted half the Japanese Army across the deserts of Manchuria you’re left with very little to hang your hat on. At the end he’s just too much of an archetype. He’s a cog to get The Bad and The Weird to that standoff where their developments ignite revelations for the audience; The Good just stays cool…and simple.
However, as complaints go, that’s a fairly lame one. The Good The Bad The Weird is one of the best of the neo-Westerns. Not only does it deserve a place at the head of that table, it belongs alongside your favorite action entertainers. Yes, I’m talking about those Leone flicks, but I’m also talking about Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950), The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960), The Professionals (Richard Brooks, 1966). Movies that knew how to have popcorn fun with the genre before Peckinpah and Eastwood brooded it all up in the 1970s.