Kim Ji-woon’s “The Good The Bad The Weird” is a perversely comic, action-heavy riff on Sergio Leone’s most famous western, a parody/homage/remake with a twist, or two, or four. And like the Tarantino works that obviously inspired it, it’s both reverential of its predecessors and madly inventive on its own. Kim and his co-writer Kim Min-suk have managed to give us something that feels so familiar, yet also so wonderfully new.
It’s the 1930s, smack dab in the middle of Japan’s expansion into Manchuria, where Korean refugees, Russian nomads, and Chinese locals all tough it out. Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun) – the Bad – is a notorious, neurotic killer hired by a local crime lord to swipe a legendary treasure map; Do-won (Jung Woo-sung) – the Good – is the rugged bounty hunter looking for Chang-yi. They’re destined to find each other on a dangerous train ride, but neither expect the Weird: Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho), a scrappy, bumbling crook who stumbles his way through a train robbery and makes off with the map, unaware that he’s just landed the undesirable attention of the killer, the bounty hunter, Japanese soldiers, Russian bandits, and gangsters on horseback.
Tae-goo and Do-won end up together, although both wouldn’t object to double-crossing the other, and Chang-yi wouldn’t object to offing both of them. Do they ever find the treasure? That would be telling, although it’s safe to say the whole damn thing ends with all three in the middle of nowhere, guns raised in a Mexican standoff, and really, how else would you want this movie to end?
Kim, the up and coming Korean cinema superstar (“A Tale of Two Sisters,” “A Bittersweet Life”), here writes with collaborator (rookie scribe Kim Min-suk), and the two churn out a work of delicious madness, the sort of bold, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to storytelling that finds gears shifting and genres colliding with wicked glee, the colorful result of two film geeks sitting down and thinking, “If we could throw everything into one big action movie, what would we like to see?”
As a director, Kim then reveals the knack to bring these ideas to wide-eyed life. His skills behind the camera – handling action, comedy, thrills, drama, the works – are matched by an anxious enthusiasm which spreads into the audience. When “Hellboy II” opened earlier this year, I wrote of its director, Guillermo del Toro: “Like a young Spielberg before him, del Toro gives off this ‘I get to make movies for a living, isn’t that awesome?!’ vibe that’s too often missing on the screen.” That vibe is here, too, in spades, with Kim barreling through his story with giddy delight. This is not a movie you just watch; it’s one you cheer. It’s one that makes you grin the sort of big, goofy grin that pops up whenever you’re reminded of just how much fun going to the movies can be.
The film is essentially one long string of set pieces, but what set pieces they are. We kick off with one hell of a train robbery, take a stroll through a massive black market village, witness shoot-outs in the unlikeliest of places, endure a brutal showdown with the mob boss, giggle as Tae-goo helps children escape from an opium den, and on and on and on it goes. The finale is a work of sheer beauty, which reminds us so very much of Leone while completely earning its own respect – we’ve laughed and thrilled and gasped with these three men, and now here they are, imitating that familiar human triangle, and we lean forward, not just to soak in Kim’s homage, but to get just that much closer to the tension, the wonder, the thrill. Each chapter of this film works beautifully, both on its own and as part of the whole, as grand scale storytelling; the cinematic quotes and the winking set-ups are the dessert, not the main course.
That hefty main course would have to be the brilliant, giant, jaw-dropping jeeps-and-horses chase sequence that goes on forever, yet never wears itself – or us – out. It’s all there, even a shout-out to the truck chase in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (itself an homage to “Stagecoach” – it’s a cinematic paraphrase within a cinematic paraphrase). Kim’s camera bobs and weaves through every frame, around every stuntman, as countless jeeps and horses and bandits and soldiers chase each other through an endless desert. It’s about as breathless as an action sequence can get.
Through it all, there are great performances (especially by Song, who delivers a masterfully layered comic turn) and great ideas and greater thrills. Kim, bursting with appreciation for the movies that influenced him, bolstered by a talent to make movies that are all his own, makes his mark as one of the must-watch filmmakers of this generation. “The Good The Bad The Weird” is like every favorite movie you’ve ever loved, and like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Note: This review was originally published at eFilmCritic as part of their coverage of the 2008 Fantastic Fest. It’s being reprinted here to mark the film’s long overdue U.S. release.