||You needn't have seen a Sergio Leone film to recognize the legendary Italian director’s trademark style. Extreme close-ups, panoramic widescreen compositions, morally ambiguous characters, and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack are just a few of Leone's hallmarks. His relatively small output of Westerns – A Fistful of Dollars (1964); For a Few Dollars More (1965); The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966); Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and (to a lesser extent) A Fistful of Dynamite [AKA: Duck, You Sucker!] (1971); – have left an indelible mark not just on the Western genre and movies in general, but on the larger pop culture landscape, as references to his films appear in everything from Quentin Tarantino movies to 30-second TV commercials.
Leone’s peers in Italy also had some success with their own so-called Spaghetti Westerns, as films like Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966), The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968), They Call Me Trinity (Enzo Barboni, 1971), and The Grand Duel (Giancarlo Santi, 1972), have gone on to achieve cult classic status with viewers worldwide. The Spaghetti Western forever changed the way Americans viewed and made Westerns, and these films even opened the door for other non-American filmmakers to try their hand at what was likely seen as an exclusively American genre.
Asian directors would also get in on the act despite the seeming cognitive dissonance one might experience in conceiving of an Asian-made Western. Every now and then, an “Eastern Western” will inevitably pop up, with the Hong Kong film Peace Hotel (Wai Ka-Fai, 1995), the Thai-produced Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000), and the more recent Japanese iteration, Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike, 2007) all serving as prime examples of Asian attempts to pay homage to the popular genre. With the arrival of The Good,The Bad, The Weird, it’s clear that Korea’s turn at making a Spaghetti Western was more than worth the wait.
Delivering a film that is fun to watch and clips along at a pace that would leave the scene-stretching Leone breathless, director Kim Ji-Woon succeeds (for the most part) at paying tribute to the genre. Kim creates a film that successfully mimics the look and feel of prior Westerns, while also bringing a more contemporary Korean feel to the proceedings. Unlike Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (which I also enjoyed), The Good, the Bad, the Weird isn’t meant as some huge cross-cultural in-joke, but is instead an honest-to-goodness Western and a rollicking good time at the movies to boot. The main difference, besides the Asian protagonists, is that it’s not in the 19th Century American West, but in 1930s Manchuria where the shootouts are taking place.
Like the film to which it owes its title, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Kim Ji-Woon’s film centers on the fatal encounter between three different gunmen. Cold-blooded killer Park Chang-Yi (Lee Byung-Hun), ostensibly “The Bad” of the title, hijacks a train in order to steal a treasure map from a Japanese official onboard. Unfortunately for Chang-Yi, “The Weird” – Yoon Tae-Gu (Song Kang-Ho) – has already swiped the map right from under his nose.
Of course, the party isn’t complete without the shotgun-toting bounty hunter, Park Do-Won (Jung Woo-Sung), who rounds out the trio of title characters as the de facto protagonist, “The Good” - although that status is, in some ways, an open question throughout the film. Plenty of fireworks ensue when these three cross paths, as they find themselves on the run from the Imperial Japanese Army, Manchurian bandits, and Korean resistance fighters as they each try to one-up each other on a quest for the much sought after buried treasure. But is it all a wild goose chase? By story’s end, loyalties switch, secrets are revealed, and things get awful personal on the way to the big gundown.
While partly an exercise in style and nostalgia, The Good, the Bad, the Weird holds together primarily due to the director’s steady hand and the star power of its lead actors. Song Kang-Ho (Memories of Murder, The Host) is able to create the most realized and well-rounded character of the three, giving a performance that is indelibly his and yet still evocative of two other stars from Leone’s films, Eli Wallach (“The Ugly” in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) and Rod Steiger (Fistful of Dynamite). Lee Byung-Hun is absolutely sinister as “The Bad,” which puts him in good standing with his Leone doppelganger, Lee Van Cleef. Although mostly confined to looking stylishly evil, his character is given a last minute reveal via flashback (itself a Leone touch) that gives his character additional depth.
The only member of the trio that suffers is Jung Woo-Sung, an actor who probably hasn’t been in a really good film since 2001’s Musa. He’s no Clint Eastwood (who is?), but to be fair, the real problem is that his character gets the short shrift story-wise, as Do-Won’s personal motivation and overall characterization seem vague in comparison to the other two lead characters. It also doesn’t help that visually, his character is far too clean-cut and bland when matched against the other two. He’s supposed to be an anti-hero on par with Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, Charles Bronson’s Harmonica, or Franco Nero’s Django, but the somewhat generic Park Do-Won doesn’t even come close.
Before seeing the film I was optimistic about Kim’s ability to adapt the Western to a more Korean sensibility as three of his films – The Foul King (2000), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), and A Bittersweet Life (2005) – are some of the best Korean films from the last ten years. Also, those three films diverged widely in genre (comedy, ghost story, and neo-noir respectively), showing that Kim can work within and transcend genre constraints to his own liking. Kim succeeds at performing a similar feat with The Good, The Bad, the Weird, successfully evoking the work of Sergio Leone and other classic Westerns without sacrificing his own personal style. The propulsive plot, complete with a secret treasure, a hidden and somewhat startling history between characters, and delightful, devil-may-care gunplay that evokes the best of John Woo makes the film a joy to watch for the overwhelming majority of its running time.
However, Kim does seem to drop the ball in the film’s finale, which – like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly before it – involves a climactic three-way duel. Unfortunately, this shootout pales in comparison to its forebear. While the whole sequence certainly looks the part, it fails on both a musical and visceral level, becoming the one section of the film that feels false – like an empty pastiche. Furthermore, the aftermath of the duel is incredibly dissatisfying, as is the epilogue, which proceeds to reverse some of what previously occurred. In light of all that came before, the finale needs to be more epic in tone and execution. However, considering that the pace is so pedal-to-the-medal throughout the film's two-hour-plus running time, it'ss no wonder that the damn thing runs completely out of gas in the final moments.
Despite the film's flaws, fans of the Western genre and non-fans alike are sure to get a kick out of The Good, the Bad, the Weird, as it delivers – for the most part – an undeniably entertaining ride as well as a compelling Korean variation on an oh-so-familiar genre staple. If Kim Ji-Woon has A Fistful of Kimchi in the works, I’ll be happy to buy a ticket. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)