With an abundance of energy, and some incredible cinematography, Kim Jee-Woon brings much-needed life to the Western genre.
“I’ll give you what you want. Just give me the map.”
In 2007, Takashi Miike gave us Sukiyaki Western Django, a love letter of sorts to Leone’s movies. It was … fine. A bit weird, with no Japanese dialogue, just phonetic English, and seemingly no production value, the whole movie always felt like an oddity of Miike’s, something that was never sure what it was meant to be. Marketed as a kimchi western, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, however, is another story altogether, and Korea’s answer to the genre.
The movie’s titular Good, Bad and Weird characters are Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung), Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun) and Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho). Chang-yi is hired to steal a valuable map from a Japanese official on a train, currently crossing the Manchurian desert. However he discovers that Tae-goo, a thief, has already hijacked the carriage and stolen the map. Chang-yi’s plans are temporarily thwarted when Do-won shows up, keen to take Chang-yi in for the bounty money.
Do-won learns about the map, and knowing that Tae-goo has a bounty on his head, decides to pursue him. On their tail, however, is Chang-yi, who has his own agenda and before long a madcap, action-packed chase across the desert begins. Tae-goo is helped by his partner Man-gil (Ryu Seung-soo), but before long they are attacked by a group of desert bandits, captured by Do-won, hunted by Chang-yi, and that’s all before the Japanese army itself gets involved.
At this point in his career, director Kim Jee-woon knows exactly what he’s doing and his mastery of the camera makes for some incredible scenes of action. The camera swoops in and out of the battlefield at will, giving a massive sense of scale to the proceedings. The Manchurian desert is vast, and both Kim and his cinematographer Lee Mo-gae (who worked with him before in A Tale of Two Sisters) work together to showcase this. Escalation is the name of the game here, and though the film starts fairly big, with an excellent battle in a moving train, it gets even bigger to the point where Yoon Tae-goo is, at the end, being chased across the desert by bandits, outlaws and the Japanese army. And it looks excellent all throughout.
The weakest part of this movie is probably the story, which doesn’t do anything particularly new. There are plenty of references and callbacks to its spaghetti western namesake, but none of that helps make the plot feel fresh in any way. The story is more of an excuse and way to stitch a bunch of great action sequences together, and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the overall film probably could have fared better with a stronger story holding it all in place. It’s not always clear why everyone has such a stake in the story outside of the possibility of buried treasure, which is definitely a failing, if not exactly a massive one.
And this is because there is so much fun to be had here. There’s plenty of gunslinging action, some impressive (and some awesomely stupid) stunts which mean that once it gets going, you completely forget about the story and are just there to enjoy the ride. Kim Jee-woon is happy to repeat the plot beats of all-too-familiar Western tropes, but gives the action his own spin. What might have been once a static forgettable gunfight in a John Wayne film becomes chaotic dance number that weaves from house to house, from the ground to the rooftops, with Do-won swinging his way through the set, blasting everyone with his improbably great aim. These are the moments that make the film stand out, and Kim’s definitely got the chops to pull it off.
It also greatly helps that the film has such a likeable trio of leads. Song Kang-ho is always a treat, and he’s worked alongside Kim enough now for the two of them to have such synergy that his performance feels almost effortless. Lee Byung-hun is a great villainous presence, whose sadism could have easily been over-the-top (not forgetting his terrible, dated emo look), but he plays it off with more nuance than you might fear. Jung Woo-sung is probably the least charismatic of the three, but that’s largely due to his one-note character. Considering what he’s given, Jung does a lot and works hard to keep the character affable in the audience’s eyes. You’re more likely to forgive the errors within the storytelling when the people playing the roles are such a delight to watch.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird is frenetic, energetic and a hell of a lot of fun. From the opening shootout on the train to the incredible finale, it’s an exercise in acceleration that doesn’t demand much from its audience, but gives a lot back. It’s the result of both experienced filmmakers and cast coming together to make something they know the audience will love.
Verdict: Full of memorable and exciting moments, The Good, the Bad, the Weird isn’t revolutionary cinema, but it’s still pretty damn good.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Grannies in a Cupboard: 1
Reloading a shotgun while riding a horse: Unbelievably cool if you’re Do-won
Protection from ballistics: A diving helmet works.
Alternate endings: Both are pretty good.
Finger Chopper suplot: Unneeded, really.
Chang-yi: That dude sure can throw a knife.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)
Also known as 좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈 (Jo-eun nom, nappeun nom, isanghan nom)
Korean, Japanese, Mandarin
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Writers: Kim Jee-woon, Kim Min-suk
Song Kang-ho – Yoon Tae-goo, the Weird
Lee Byung-hun – Park Chang-yi, the Bad
Jung Woo-sung – Park Do-won, the Good
Yoon Je-moon – Byeong-choon
Ryu Seung-soo – Man-gil
Song Yeong-chang – Kim Pan-joo
Son Byong-ho – Seo Jae-sik
Oh Dal-su – Park Seo-bang
Uhm Ji-won – Na-yeon (cameo)
Oh Yeon-ah – Japanese female train passenger (cameo)