‘The Good, The Bad, The Weird’ was released in 2008 and was directed by Ji-woon Kim. Famed in Korea for his excellent productions, which include ‘A Bittersweet Life’ and ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, Kim takes his talent to the Wild West for his latest offering. Inspired by the well known American Western, of which it shares two thirds of a title, 'The Good, The Bad, The Weird' was nominated for a whole host of Asian Film Awards (it only won for Best Supporting Actor) and was also given a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival (it was not officially in the competition). At the time of release, this movie was the most expensive ever to be made in South Korea, with a reputed budget of $17 million. The finished product also took two years to produce, so here’s hoping that all of the investment in this lavish and complex presentation was money well spent.
The cast comprise some of the finest Korean talent available. Kang-ho Song (‘The Host’) takes on the role of Yoon Tae-goo. Joining him in the co-lead roles are Byung-Hun Lee (‘G.I Joe: Rise of the Cobra’), who plays Park Chang-yi, and Woo-Sung Jung (‘The Warrior’), who plays Park Do-won. Not only are all these men very accomplished actors but they are also all devilishly handsome!
The plot revolves around a mysterious map, which has changed hands many times over the course of its existence and was created sometime after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. It holds the key to a treasure of incredible value and has rapidly become the most sought after item in the Manchurian Wild West (a desolate wasteland between China and Korea). Enter Yoon Tae-goo (The Weird), a Korean exile who is robbing and conning as many people as he can to make his wicked living as an outlaw. Performing a routine train robbery, he stumbles across a certain map and although not immediately realising it’s worth, he decides that it most hold some importance and stows it away with the rest of his swag. Several cars down, one of the most feared bandits and the self proclaimed most dangerous killer in the world, Park Chang-yi (The Bad), is also seeking the map, unbeknown to Tae-goo.
But things are not going Chang Yi’s way as his men are slowly picked off by a mysterious bounty hunter, who is pursuing them with terminator like persistence and accuracy. This bounty hunter is none other than Park Do-won (The Good), and he is best at what he does; capturing bad guys and taking them to county. As Tae-goo makes off with the map, with the other two (and Chang-Yi’s gang) in hot pursuit, a rapid chase across old Manchuria ensues. It’s not long before other bandits and the Japanese army get wind of the race for treasure and join the fray. In addition to the priceless map, the three are also vying for position as the best in the West, and all lay their considerable reputations on the line to see who is destined to go down in the history books with the grandest prize of them all; a victory over the other two.
I have to say that I enjoyed this movie immensely. The opening scene (the aforementioned rip roaring train robbery) immediately and explosively introduces us to the primary players in a wholly exciting and attention demanding manner. This mode of delivery continues throughout, as we leap from encounter to encounter, each one with it own high points and stunt set pieces. That’s not to say that this is a one trick pony, as the plot ensures that the audience’s interest is retained through the mysterious and elusive promise of unknown treasure, which reputedly will provide untold wealth. The pace is more or less break-neck for the duration, with a couple of respites in the action providing an opportunity to get to know the characters. The gunfights are incredibly intense, with countless bullets zinging past our heroes as they desperately try to escape from the frying pan only to find themselves in the fire. There are also a couple of truly epic knife fights (which includes the most amusing and brutal stabbing that I have ever witnessed......ouch!) and cavalry shoot outs, making this one of the most action packed movies that I have seen in a long, long time. To be honest, I’m not too well up on the history of Manchuria in the thirties, but the sets and wardrobes appear to be spot on here. A huge amount of detail has been invested to recreate an authentic Western setting that feels suave and sophisticated (with regards to some of the wardrobe choices), as well as brutal and dangerous.
In the Wild (Manchurian) West, reputation is everything and Tae-goo, Chang-yi and Do-won all strive to be the best. This allows motivation and personality to slowly emerge, and as the movie progressed, I found myself really warming to the central characters. They are all very colourful and have real bad ass auras (especially Chang-yi), which enhances their reputation and also enamours the audience towards them. Song, in particular, puts on a great performance here, with his bumbling and seemingly invulnerable (due to his amazing luck) character providing both excitement and also moments of comedy. Both Lee and Jung are excellent in their respective roles and bring both menace and honour, respectively, to their characters. The rest of the cast are somewhat forgettable (with a few exceptions) but at least they don’t ham it up in any shape or form and surprisingly, for an Asian movie, provide some genuinely amusing moments; I often find that Asian comedy travels poorly but am glad to mark this movie as one of the rare exceptions.
Aside from the plot, which is bursting at the seams with action and adventure, and the collectively impressive cast, the fluid direction from Kim is a joy to behold. He uses a wide selection of camera angles, from sweeping long shots, to intense close-ups, with every choice matching the on screen action to perfection. There are many standout scenes, with the opening train robbery and the shoot out in the market, standing as a couple of high points. Complex continuous shots and perspective zoom shots (a la ‘House of Flying Daggers’) are all included here and these techniques really serve to inject energy and keep the plot hurtling along with flair and vibrancy. The speed at which some of the gunfights and other encounters unfold (especially the final showdown with the Japanese army) is at times mind-blowing and it’s a wonderful achievement to attain this full throttle approach while still retaining clarity of vision that does not obscure any of the action. Kim is obviously a perfectionist, with multiple angles taking of every shot, which are all used in abundance to grant the audience with the best possible viewpoint of every single encounter. The fact that the two hour run time, which on the surface seems a little hefty for such a simplistic plot, flies by, is a testament to the skill of this director, not only for creating such an engrossing picture, but also for getting the very best from his cast and crew.
I’m firmly in the new wave when it comes to Western movies. While I have enjoyed classics such as ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ and Leone’s collective brilliance, I’ve got a personal preference for more modern offerings such as ‘3:10 to Yuma’ and ‘Unforgiven’. This effort from Kim combines the best elements of both, while still managing to feel both fresh and interesting; of course there are a few obvious nods to Leone Et. Al. included, but these are not mindless rip offs. It’s everything that a summer blockbuster should be and more. It’s got copious amounts of action, some nice characterisation, a basic but intriguing plot and is reminiscent of a Western that Tarantino and Rodriguez might put together (with a little less gore and a dash of ‘Indiana Jones’ thrown in to boot). Best of all, this movie wears it’s heart on its sleeve and doesn’t pretend or try to be something which it is not, even if it can get a little silly at times. This is simply one of those movies which stands head and shoulders above others and manages to retain some of the sense of adventure and excitement that grips you at the opening scene and doesn’t relent until the credits roll. It’s also, if I may be so bold, one of the most stylish and inventive Westerns that I have seen to date. I would have absolutely no issue in recommending this movie to all fans of Western genres or indeed any action fans in general. Top notch entertainment and, in my book, a must buy; a high eight is awarded here.
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