DVD Review: The Good The Bad The Weird
At the start of Kim Ji-woon's The Good The Bad The Weird, three Korean misfits, their homeland occupied by the Japanese, converge on the same train in 1930s Manchuria. Following close in their wake are trouble and a whole hail of bullets. And that also happens to be what they're walking into as well.
First up, there's Yoon Tae-goo (played by Song Kang-ho, previously a bleach-haired and irresponsible father in The Host), a wreckless thief who just hopes to rob the train of its valuables. Next comes Park Chang-yi (played by Lee Byung-hun, the lead in Kim's earlier A Bittersweet Life) a vicious bandit on a mission to steal a mysterious map from the train. And pursuing Chang-yi is the bounty hunter Park Do-won - played by Jung Woo-sung, who I've never actually seen in anything before, but whose purpose here seems to be to look as non-threatening as possible while racking up the highest body count of any of these three anti-heroes.
Naturally Tae-goo, the Weird, winds up finding the map, forming a distrustful alliance with Do-won, the (relatively) Good, and then gallivanting across the Manchurian desert towards the map's destination with Chang-yi, the Bad, in hot pursuit. All three lead actors acquit themselves brilliantly. Song's comedic performance as the Weird could quite easily have stolen the whole film, but Lee's bandit exudes perfect, graceful menace, and Jung, while he may seem to get much less screen time than the other two, also gets to command the action scenes, cutting a swathe through Manchuria without batting an eyelid.
This film is an action-adventure, through-and-through. Every time you think that Kim must have surely reached a plateau and run out of ways to escalate the action, he pulls out the kitchen sink and throws it into the mix. By the final act, Tae-goo's motorcycle is being pursued by Chang-yi, Do-won and two rival gangs on horseback, while the whole lot of them are shelled and machine-gunned by the Japanese army. And while the eventual three-way showdown is far from unexpected, it still manages to feel fresh and bring a few interesting things to the table.
I've mentioned before that Kim has clearly taken inspiration from Leone in the past, but although this film does borrow a lot of the language of the western - amoral vagabonds embarking on violent misadventures in pursuit of riches - the biggest inspiration here seems to be classic Spielberg adventures like Indiana Jones. There's the treasure map, the huge real world sets that are inevitably blown to bits, the stunt-intensive chase with people leaping between vehicles and being dragged along the ground, and the general feeling that the film is doing everything it can to present you with adventure and spectacle at every turn.
Of those Korean films that are released in the west, it's almost routine to expect visual perfection, and Kim certainly doesn't disappoint in that regard here. The action direction's not quite as tight as in A Bittersweet Life, but events are always presented in a way that maximises their impact, be they moments of action or atmosphere. The sound design is excellent as well - not just because of the bombastic, multicultural, frequently anachronistic soundtrack, but because Kim knows when to let the action speak for itself, and also because he clearly understands that gunshots (of which there are plenty) should be loud and emphasised, rather than muffled or over-stylised as they often are in action films.
The Good The Bad The Weird is a rip-roaring, violent, characterful, colourful and sometimes hilarious action-adventure. It's a new entry in a genre that has been pretty poorly served so far this century, and watching it, it's strange to realise that. This is flat-out entertainment of the highest calibre, and anyone with an interest in chases, explosions, gunfights and gags should run out and find this film immediately.