The Good, the Bad and the Weird (or Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom if you like phonetic spelling of Korean titles) might be the truest movie title of all time. An obvious spoof on Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, Ji-Woon Kim’s successfully captures much of Leone’s self conscious directorial mannerisms to the degree that the film is at times totally incomprehensible. (now as to whether this is meant to be part of the satire is a point of debate certainly, but I think I have seen enough movies to be able to recognize a satirical wink from the director if it indeed was there) That said, the movie is not boring, it is pretty well made, and in its quieter passages, it is in fact pretty funny.
The movie starts with a train robbery where a treasure map is being pursued by the three combatants. No explanation is provided, indeed no backstory is told of any significance – the map is a MacGuffin, and so it really becomes about the chase. The movements on the train, the dialogue, the action, basically serve entirely to introduce the three individuals – all good performances and all clearly studied Leone closely:
Park Do-Won (The Good) – As played by Woo-sung Jung, he is the implacable silent hero. With his cowboy hat, limited dialogue and very very deft shotgun, Park Do-Won is a perfect tribute to the archetypal Clint Eastwood hero. That Jung lacks Eastwood’s weathered features – and thus some additional kickass hardness – is not a huge problem.
Park Chang-Yi (The Bad) – Played by Byung-hun Lee, he is the tribute to the Lee Van Cleef character in the Leone film. Indeed his behavior and mannerisms are pretty menacing. He is a cold blooded killer, seen sharply in a movie with a startling amount of gore (more on that later), and had a chance to be menacing if he did not look like Prince. Actually, he looks less like Prince as the Prince who took out Charlie Murphy in basketball:
Maybe it’s just me. (shoot the J!)
Yoon Tae-Goo (The Weird) – in his work playing the Eli Wallach character, Kang-ho Song gives the best performance in the movie. Fast talking, desperate and not what he seems, Yoon Tae-Goo is simply a con man after treasure. Much like the Eli Wallach character, he seems twirpy and helpless, but you can see it as a defense strategy – his tools for getting by.
So, those are the sides – we have seen them inside a nonsensical train robbery, then comes pursuit of the treasure. It is in these passages that the movie starts to take some shape as good satire. We get scenes of The Good and The Weird in the desert (Japanese occupied Manchuria here), complete with a useful scene of doublecrossing. We see what Yoon Tae-Goo does when he has a chance to escape – and it leads to a very funny scene in a whorehouse, where a sadistic pimp suffers an end that, yes, would have been at home in Pulp Fiction. There are also encounters with the Bad, which turn into firefights whose spatial and plot reality seem completely obfuscated – really it is just the chance for Kim to film some very deft action sequences, although for a comedy, the gore level is a bit much … Tarantino controls his effects much better on that front (just to name one).
All of this culminates with a chase for the treasure in the desert which is right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark in addition to the Western tradition, and for me at least, it evoked The Road Warrior as well. At this point, Kim dispenses with plot entirely and is just filming kills. (I did not stay long enough to see if there was an assurance that no horses were harmed in filming – whatever assurance that might have been, color me skeptical) This makes it like a funnier Saw on some level, but I found it a bit distracting. That said, when it gets to the final three finding the treasure map X … it ends more or less exactly as it has to.