Not having seen Kim Jee-Woon’s previous films, but remembering that other Heroic reviewers are big fans (see A Bittersweet Life, A Tale of Two Sisters and The Foul King), I jumped at the chance to go and see it. The frenetic, action-packed trailer had caught my attention, too, reminding me of Tears of the Black Tiger with an ensemble cast and a Leone-style desert setting.
At the beginning of the film, Chang-yi (Lee Byung-heon) is hired to steal a map, currently possessed by a Japanese businessman: it’s clear from the start that he’s the Bad of the title, from the perpetually-unhinged assassin in foppish clothes school of bad guys. At the same time, bounty hunter Do-won (Jung Woo-sung, the Good) is also hired by Korean freedom fighters to retrieve the same map: he’s interested in the chance to collect the bounty on Chang-yi’s head as well. Finally, into the mix stumbles bandit Tae-gu (Song Kang-ho), who collects the map almost by accident while robbing the train its owner is on. He races off over the Manchurian landscape on a motorcycle, pursued by everyone under the sun, from Chang-yi to the Japanese army.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a hugely entertaining homage to the style of the American western and the works of Sergio Leone: Chang-yi stalks Tae-gu with palpable menace, Do-wan is debonair and heroic and the the plot is driven towards a concusion that we know will involve a confrontation between these two titanic men. Tae-gu is the rogue element, the seemingly unkillable train-robber who’s just looking out for number one. There is an occasional attempt at extracting some depth from our characters’ motivations and a murmured nationalist message in there as well, but it does tend to play second fiddle to the puff of gunpowder and Tae-gu’s bumbling antics.
The direction and visual style of the film bring to mind some of Tsui Hark’s later hyper-kinetic Hong Kong action films, perhaps even some anime: many of the action scenes are cut very fast and have beautifully complicated choreography, obviously meticulous in its planning and execution. All three performances are good, with Jung Woo-sung (the Good) perhaps given a little less to do than the other two. Much of the film focuses on Tae-gu as he flees with the map, and Song Kang-ho puts in an hilarious performance: one particular scene during a gun battle in the middle of the film is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a film this year.
All in all, I enjoyed The Good, the Bad, the Weird enormously, and now it’s clear that I have to go and watch Kim Jee-woon’s back catalogue. It’s not for those who want a bit more of a message to chew on or a serious depiction of Manchurian life in the 1930s, but it is a lot of fun.