The Good, the Bad and the Weird, if the title is any hint, is an homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Kim Ji-woon borrows liberally from all three of the Clint Eastwood films, taking a scene from one then, a little later, one from another. He takes it further than just a cheap reference–at one point, Song Kang-ho ends up in a deep sea diver helmet, which isn’t a reference (to my knowledge) but it fits rather well, stylistically.
What’s most striking about the film isn’t those references or homage. Instead, it’s the film’s place as a singular action movie. It’s set in Manchuria during Japanese aggression with a trio of expatriate Koreans living, albeit with more technologically, a life very similar to the characters in a Western. Even with the gun fights, the horses and the train robbery, the film isn’t actually a Western. It’s a war film, only it’s told from a Western point of view, which means there are long stretches without any reference to the spaghetti westerns it emulates in the first act.
These long stretches are instead action sequences. They’re magnificently choreographed–Song on a motorcycle being chase by one set of bad guys on horses and another set of bad guys on horses and the Japanese army and then another guy on horseback. It’s set across the Manchurian desert and with the humor and the skill, it feels more like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Road Warrior. One of those films where large scale action scenes constantly surprised.
As a director, Kim doesn’t emulate, say, Leone’s style (until the end, which I’m sure I won’t forget). Instead, he has his own approach to the material and he’s fantastic. It’s a nice wide frame, filled with content and movement. At times, it’s hard to follow the film–there are so many different gangs of gunmen, it’s hard to keep them straight–but Kim’s direction is never confusing, even when he’s got an intricate moving shot (the first half of the film is full of them, for example, the camera moving between six people–one take–for reaction shots to what the first person sees). As a visual experience, the film’s a constant joy.
But then there’s the end. The end is when the film has to live up to its title–following that fabulous desert chase scene and a hilarious escape sequence, which kind of elevate the film to a higher plane. It can’t win. By falling into genre requirements–the wrong genre–The Good, the Bad and the Weird becomes an awkward, self-aware, pseudo-hip (the music never goes for Morricone, but the end’s got some hip hop, which really doesn’t work) fake spaghetti western. Instead of a singular war movie about countrymen–something the film has going for it almost until that point–it then collapses, even if the big reveal is hilarious.
As the titular weird, Song’s a delight. Good guy Jung Woo-sung barely has a character, but he plays well with Song so it doesn’t matter. Lee Byung-hun’s bad guy has almost as much style as Prince and watches American gangster movies. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It plays into the film’s lunacy, but Lee never lets the absurdity run rampant. He keeps it in check.
The film’s incredibly violent, which differentiates it as well. Westerns tend not to be anti-violent, but again… it isn’t really a Western. There are some really nice narrative tricks, ones requiring the viewer to be on his or her toes. It’d be hard, given all the action, for the film to be a passive viewing experience, but a couple of the sleights were extreme.
It’s a good movie, but it could have been so much better.
Directed by Kim Ji-woon; written by Kim Ji-woon and Kim Min-suk; directors of photography, Lee Mo-gae and Oh Seong-chul; edited by Nam Na-young; music by Dalparen and Chan Young-gyu; production designer, Cho Hwa-sung; produced by Choi Jai-won; released by CJ Entertainment.
Starring Song Kang-ho (Yoon Tae-goo), Lee Byung-hun (Park Chang-yi), Jung Woo-sung (Park Do-won), Ryu Seung-su (Man-gil), Zhang Qi (Deligeer), Yun Jae-mun (Byeong-chun), Son Byeong-ho (Seo Jae-shik), Song Yeong-chang (Kim Pan-ju), Kim Gwang-il (Two Blades), Ma Dong-suk (Bear), Ryu Chang-suk (Granny) and Lee Chung-ah (Song-yi).