As part of our collective history, it was a cinematic staple. When TV arrived, it became part of that medium’s mindset as well. From radio series to matinee serials, the Western walked through the early part of 20th century pop culture with a side-armed swagger that nothing – or no one – could seemingly stop. But by the ’60s, as America was reassessing its part in the destruction/disenfranchisement of its “native” population, the genre lost most of its patina. By the later part of the decades, the thrill kill ultra-violence of the Italian spaghetti take on the material was needed to resurrect the once mighty movie type. Now, nearly four decades later, Korean filmmaker Ji-woon Kim gives up a reinvention of an update, a brilliant “Asian Noodle” look at the archetypes that’s as indebted to Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone as it is post post-modern auteurs like Quentin Tarantino.
Even the title – The Good, The Bad, The Weird (now available on DVD and Blu-ray from IFC) – gives the intentions away. Set in Manchuria during the 1930s, it features a trio of anarchic anti-heroes in desperate competition for a map. The main narrative thread sees hired assassin Park Chang-y (Lee Byung-hun) aka “The Bad”, on the hunt for the elusive document. During a robbery, confirmed thief Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho) aka “The Weird”, grabs the parchment and discovers its treasure trove truth. While “The Good”, bounty hunter Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung) tries to claim the price on The Bad’s beleaguered head, our stealthy little criminal takes the map to the cutthroat rogues of the Ghost Market. There, he hopes to decipher its secrets. Unfortunately, the Good, The Bad, the invading Japanese army, and every other villain in the region are after its proposed riches.
As a shoestring designed to hold all the firepower finesse and bullet ballets, the plot percolating under The Good, The Bad, The Weird is nothing new. It’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre revisited by an Eastern allusion to Eastwood’s Man with No Name. As a director, Kim is all invention and in-jokes. He’s paid close attention to the last few years of action adventure filmmaking worldwide and incorporated the most adrenalin soaked spectacle into his idiosyncratic vision. Granted, he is borrowing from limelights like Takashe Miike (whose Sukiyaki Western Django did something equally deconstructive with the genre) and Terry Gilliam. In fact, you could call The Good, The Bad, The Weird Unstuck in Time Bandits. While this is supposed to be the ’30s, the bravado and brave way with a weapon argues for something far more 21st Century.
At the center of this sensational film is its trio of performers, and all are wonderful. Song’s unhinged crook, one part joker, one part pantomime psychopath, is like a refugee from a silent comedy on serial killers. One moment, he’s menacing all in his path. The next, he’s bumbling his way through another surreal slapstick situation. Equally intriguing is Lee’s sinister killer. Sure, he’s got a haircut that would make Phil Oakey of Human League more than a little jealous, but there’s something evil brewing beneath the Blitz kid bangs. Jung, and as with most noble good guys in the format, suffers from a lack of actual depth. Still, as the straight man in an otherwise out of control oater, he’s more than solid. Indeed, when placed together, when required to bounce off each other like pawns in a particularly complicated version of a Mexican stand-off, they integrate into memorable horse opera dynamic.
Of course, the real star here is director Kim. Doing his celebratory best to bring elements in for all aspects of Asian cinema – from John Woo to The Shaw Brothers – he also channels action idols as diverse as George Miller and Sam Raimi. There’s a real Mad Max feel to the desert sequences, Kim using the vast expanses to argue for the scope – and potential danger – of his character’s quest. He also does something very interesting with the narrative. Just as it seems that things will be locked into a certain set-up and payoff, Kim completely countermands expectations and twists the creaky contrivances inherent in Western. Sure, alliances and friendships are only as valid as your ability to stay alive, but for the most part, The Good, The Bad, The Weird wants to have its formulas before flummoxing them completely.
What stands out most here is the action – the complicated firefights that seem lifted from a Buster Keaton treatment of The Wild Bunch. Whole hordes can be leveled in a single set-up, and when required, Kim can create suspense with the best of them. There is something cathartic, almost magical, about a movie that can pile on layer after ludicrous layer of precarious possibilities and then find an unique and wholly satisfying way to explode such manufactured needs. This is especially true of the opening train robbery and an amazing bit of block and tackle acrobats at the core of the Ghost Market sequence. While he may be trying to legitimately channel Leone and Ford, Kim is actually arguing for his status as a replacement to Bay and Bruckheimer.
Such a striking dynamic is what makes The Good, The Bad, The Weird so electrifying…and satisfying. At any given moment, it can be enjoyed as a traditional oater, as a variation on a hoary old Hollywood theme, as a visionary reinterpretation of a genre type, a stellar stunt spectacle, a comedy, a slick social commentary, and just about any other reading you want to toss into the mix. When the spaghetti western ruled the cinema, it was seen as a gritty attempt to mesh heroism with the heated cruelty and brutality of a decidedly cutthroat era. Clearly, the noodle take on the material is not quite as vicious. Still, for what he wants to accomplish across several motion picture mannerisms, Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird is a definite delight. It may be the final word on, not the reestablishment of, this once mighty pop culture fixture, but when the results are as clever and convincing as this, the genre should be happy to go out on such a high note.