The latest from South Korean director Ji-woon Kim is a simple pleasure.
Sergio Leone’s monumental 1960’s Spaghetti Westerns filtered old Hollywood cowboy tropes through the prism of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics. So I guess it only makes generational sense that Ji-woon Kim’s “Kimchi Western” revision pours a shit-ton more genre influences into the archetypal Cuisenart, pureeing everything from chop-socky cheapies to The Road Warrior in a gargantuan, cheerfully anachronistic romp.
Too long and over-plotted, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is too much of a good thing, but I think that’s what they were going for.
Substituting Leone’s Civil War backdrop with 1930’s Manchuria, the film borrows its namesake’s structure of pitting three badasses at cross-purposes in search of buried treasure. But as this is a film by South Korean bad-boy Kim, the focus is mainly on The Weird of the title, so if you can imagine The Good, The Bad and the Ugly told from the point of view of Eli Wallach’s hammy Tuco, you’re off to a fairly decent start.
As played by rubber-faced Song Kang-ho, the always-reliable MVP of Bong Joon-Ho and Chan-wook Park pictures, wily Yoon Tae-goo is a comically low-rent bandit boasting an incredible streak of good luck over these 130 minutes. Clutzy, loutish and wearing the headgear of a WWI flying ace—complete with goggles—our goofball anti-hero quickly finds himself in possession of a coveted treasure map, despite having no idea what to do with it. He bumbles his way into one impossibly dangerous situation after another, blazing away with double-fisted pistols John Woo-style. Thanks to either recklessness or stupidity he miraculously keeps coming out on top.
This doesn’t sit well with Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun), stepping in for Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes in The Bad role, opting for over-the-top where his predecessor went for icy cool. His eyes hidden behind the distended bangs of a 1980s New Wave haircut, decked out in the kind of 19th-century formal duds Johnny Depp usually wears to awards ceremonies, Chang-yi is such a ruthlessly accurate killing machine he can hurl a hunting blade and impale a pesky scorpion from clear across the room. Then he’ll whip out a Luger and fire four quick shots against the butt-end of the knife, hammering it and the squirming insect all the way into the wall.
Yeah, it’s silly … but also kind of awesome.
The Good character gets short shrift here. A bounty hunter played with mock-Eastwood stoicism by Jung Woo-sung, Park Do-won trails around the margins of the action, sharp-shooting with a Remington from afar and letting his duster and cowboy hat carry most of the performance on his behalf. During the movie’s brief pause for political lip-service, this stalwart bounty hunter confesses he no longer knows what he’s fighting for since the occupation. But don’t go looking for any of Leone’s stirring Civil War poetry, because that’s about as deep as we get.
Instead, the film is all about the joys of kitschy kineticism. Ji-woon Kim seems to be deliberately challenging himself as to how many moving parts he can juggle within a given action sequence. An early, dizzying train robbery keeps killing off characters as quickly as we are introduced to them. The centerpiece sequence upending a black market might probably work as a short film in its own right, as Kim makes hilarious use of props that keep recurring within the chaos. (The sublime foolishness of a Western bandit extolling the improvisational bullet-proof properties of an old-timey sea helmet is something very special indeed.)
The mash-up of wildly divergent music cues, corkscrew camera-moves and relentlessly escalating chaos does grow wearisome after a while. A final desert chase—which somehow pits the Japanese Army vs. petty hooligans, all on horses and motorcycles—is an astounding bit of Mad Max choreography that lasts almost an entire reel and left me as exhausted as I was impressed.
Sadly, nothing in The Good, The Bad, The Weird lingers with the mythic resonance of the films it relentlessly references.
But surface-level pleasures are still pleasures, no?