The cycle is complete. Japanese samurai movies like Kurosawa’s inspired fifties American westerns, which in turn inspired Italian spaghetti westerns. Now they have in turn inspired this “modern” Korean quasi-western, whose title clearly announces Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” as its model.
Less epic and more comic than Leone’s film, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is essentially a long chase movie in which the three titular characters—as well as a host of gangs and armies—try to secure an old treasure map in 1930s Manchuria, where the Japanese invaders are in the process of rolling over Chinese defenders. In the midst of the disorder, nasty thug Chang-yi (Lee Byeong-heon) is commissioned to steal the map from the train on which it’s being transported by Chinese military men, but his assault goes awry when goofy thief Tae-gu (Song Kang-ho) and his equally goofy sidekick Man-gil (Ryu Seung-su) escape with it instead. Chang-yi goes after them, but Do-weon (Jeong Woo-seong), a heroic bounty hunter, is soon on the trail of them both.
What follows is a series of over-the-top confrontations marked by ridiculously complex gunfights, gallons of blood spurted and spilled, small armies of bandits felled, and hair-raising pursuits through endless wasteland, with many moments that aim for a “I can’t believe they went that far” reaction—like the unhappy fate of Man-gil at the hand (or knife) of Chang-yi. The action is periodically interrupted by calmer scenes designed to highlight Do-weon’s quietly efficient skill, Tae-gu’s wackiness, and Chang-yi’s glassy-eyed cruelty. Naturally it all winds up with a face-to-face standoff involving the three men with guns drawn at the spot marked by the X on the map, where a surprise revelation is sprung.
That may sound terribly grim, but writer-director Kim Jee-woon mitigates the violence with lots of humor—not only verbal but visual. Much of it comes by way of Song, who makes Tae-gu a slippery goofball, but one with an honorable streak—as well as a deep secret. But Lee adds some dark humor of the wild-eyed psycho variety, and even Jeong has a few moments of sly fun in his stalwart poses. And of course the cascades of action violence are staged with a degree of nutty exuberance, in the fashion of John Woo, that can’t help but invite a smile.
The acting is hardly the most important ingredient in a picture like this, but all three stars bring the requisite qualities to their roles, with Song ably serving as the driving force that drags the other two figures along in the quest. Otherwise only Ryu makes a lasting impression as the Tae-gu’s greedy sidekick, though the lesser roles are all competently taken.
But the real star of the show isn’t even Song. It’s Kim, who brings panache and energy to what in lesser hands would have been little more than a tired period chase. Unlike Leone, who aimed for a tone of stoic intensity, he goes for in-your-face raucousness, and achieves it more often than not. He and cinematographer Lee Mo-gae also make good use of the Chinese locations, presented in impressive widescreen compositions. And the propulsive music score by Dalparan and Chang Yeong-gyu is a distinct plus.
At just over two hours, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” doesn’t aim for the epic length of its Italian inspiration, but even so it occasionally feels a bit protracted. For the most part, though, it’s an enjoyably wild ride that may do for what you might call the ‘noodle western’ what Leone’s classics did for the pasta variety.