Feb 8, 2009

The Good, The Bad and The Weird [15]

Dir: Kim Jee-Woon
Kim Jee-woon is one of South Korea’s most eclectic filmmaking talents. His movies range from the bloody gangster drama A Bittersweet Life to the dark comedy of The Quiet Family and the acclaimed ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters. His latest, as if the title didn’t tip you off, pays homage to Sergio Leone, the film is described in its end credits as an oriental western. But to see it only as that is to do The Good, The Bad, The Weird a disservice, because Kim blends the western with large scale action scenes, and an offbeat slapstick sense of humour in a highly original mix.

The story sees the three title characters, along with the Japanese army and various bands of thugs and gangsters all chasing after the same McGuffin, a ‘treasure map’ said to lead to untold riches. It’s paper thin, but provides enough of a framework for Kim to hang his blistering array of action and comedy set pieces on, while maintaining enough of a through line to make the story worth trying to follow. Trying is the operative word here, because the major problem with The Good, The Bad, The Weird is that its story flies off the rails early, descending into a confused mess that leaves you baffled as to each characters motivations, but it doesn’t matter all that much, because the ride is just such fun.

The film begins with, literally, all guns blazing, in a breathlessly exciting train hold up which sets out the film’s stall in combining action and comedy from the off. Song Kang-ho, probably best known to western audiences as the father in The Host, and a frequent collaborator with Kim, gets the plum role in this respect, playing the Weird character to the hilt. Song’s Yoon Tae-goo is a bumbling bandit whose luck and perseverance, more than any real aptitude, have made him a survivor and a great gunfighter. Song plays him like a Looney Tunes character, which should be a grating choice but because it fits the exaggerated tone of the film, and because Song’s comic timing is dead on, it works beautifully and Tae-goo provides a laugh in almost every shot.

Lee Byung-hun is the biggest star in Asia, and its not hard to see why, beyond his undeniable extraordinary handsomeness Lee is also a charismatic and versatile actor. He’ll soon show up as Storm Shadow in Stephen Sommers’ GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but here you can catch him as a lead, and as Park Chang-yi (The Bad) he commands the screen despite having a very thin character to work with. Much of this performance is in Lee’s physicality – he’s not built like Schwarzenegger, but he’s still got an air of danger about him – but it’s in an animalistic moment of violence that he really makes you believe in, and fear, Chang-yi.

Completing the central trio is Jung Woo-sung as The Good, a bounty hunter named Park Do-won who is using Tae-goo so that he can finally capture Chang-yi. Jung has the blandest character, but he brings great magnetism and personality to Do-won, as well as a fundamental decency that should really win an audience over to him.

Good as the actors are this is really the Kim Jee-woon show, and he goes all out. The film careens from set piece to set piece, each larger, louder and more impressive than the last. Besides the train heist there is a long gunfight in an outlaw town, which sees Tae-goo clad in some interesting armour. Then there’s the hilarious sequence that sees Tae-goo rescuing some children from an opium den, and the gigantic battle between the Japanese army, a gang of bandits duped by Tae-goo, Chang-yi’s bandits and Do-won and Tae-goo. That, of course, is all before the film calms down, and serves up the final shootout.

What’s really remarkable about all this is how well Kim juggles the tone, the comedy and the action gel beautifully, neither taking away from the other, which is all the more impressive given that the violence is bonecrunching and bloody, pushing the 15 certificate to its very limits. He also manages to make each set piece feel distinctive, which means that though, at 139 minutes, the film is long it’s never dull.

The only real problem is that the film’s episodic structure means that there is plenty of fat in those 139 minutes, whole sequences and characters could easily be excised and you’d not feel their absence. That might have been a good idea too, because by the end the film is rather too busy, and a lot of the motivations are unclear. Still; The Good, The Bad, The Weird is a highly enjoyable film, a rollicking good time at the movies and if it’s a little self indulgent, well, that’s forgivable.

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