Byung-hun Lee and his emo hair are the Bad.
The Good, the Bad, the WeirdDirected by Ji-Woon KimStarring Kang-Ho Song, Byung-hun Lee and Woo-sung JungNot rated*7.5*Goes well with: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Fistful of Dollars, Raiders of the Lost Ark
That old story about Marco Polo introducing pasta to Italy after his years in China is actually a myth. But the Chinese were cooking up noodles thousands of years before the Italians enjoyed pasta and long, long before 1966, when Sergio Leone released the ultimate spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
So perhaps it makes sense that the new Korean film The Good, the Bad, the Weird—a Korean spaghetti western of epic proportions—is actually set in China. Yes, Ji-Woon Kim's new film takes its cues from Leone's seminal western, using the earlier movie as an inspiration and a tongue-in-cheek jumping-off point, making no pretense of its own origins. Leone's film, which starred Clint Eastwood (the Good), Lee Van Cleef (the Bad) and Eli Wallach (guess who), is a violent epic involving three men pursuing one another and a fortune in Confederate gold against a backdrop of sweeping vistas and the Civil War. The concept is easily ported over to The Good, the Bad, the Weird, which takes place in some kind of an alt.Manchuria in them 1930s, as Korea struggles for independence from Japan. Anything goes in that part of the world at that time, an Asian Deadwood where there's no rule of law, everyone is out for himself and there's plenty of easy jack to score if you know where to look.
And all three of our guys do, because at the center of The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a leather-bound map that the three protagonists—and, seemingly, everyone else in the film—wants to get their mitts on, even though no one knows what it actually points to. The Bad in this one is Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee), a hitman and an assassin who sports an emo hairdo, some serious cheekbones and a tendency to kill his own men when they show him up. He's pursued by Park Do-won, aka the Good (Woo-sung Jung), a thin-mustachioed bounty hunter out for a reward and a good deed, whom Clint would have eaten as a snack between breakfast and lunch. But what neither of them count on is the Weird. Yes, Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song) is a middling thief who just happens to be casually robbing a train when all forces collide. He, of course, ends up with the map, and before long, it isn't just the Good and the Bad that are on his tail—there are also bandits, Korean freedom fighters and the Japanese army, all of whom want the treasure that they hope is waiting for them.
Unlike Leone's original film, director Ji-Woon Kim makes the Weird the focus. And it's a smart move, because it adds a layer of comedy and because Song Kang-ho is just so entertaining. Unknown to most Americans, he's one of the biggest movie stars in the world and seems to be in every one of the few Korean films that make their way into American theaters. This is the guy who was the lead in the monster movie The Host and also starred in Park Chan-wook's terrific vampire movie Thirst, which was here last summer.
But the real star of the show is the director, and whether you dig the movie will depend on whether you like his frenetic style. The action sequences in The Good, the Bad, the Weird are thrilling, featuring long takes that Hollywood is utterly unable to emulate, mostly because Kim goes with stuntmen rather than CGI. The production design is top-notch, as well, and the camera constantly moves, an attribute that some appreciate and others find unnerving.
It's a good time, but as the substance gives way to style, it ends up being kind of exhausting—the bits that take place between the action sequences before the movie arrives at its obligatory three-way Mexican standoff can't begin to match the gravity of Leone's original. And, of course, the standoff isn't Mexican at all. Or Italian. Or American. But, hey, Asian fusion is still in these days. And if this were an American picture, we'd call it a shallow film with terrific action sequences. Instead, we just call it a foreign film.
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