Jason says: "A few years ago, I saw a movie called A BITTERSWEET LIFE AT FANTASIA and loved it, saying it was the sort of action movie John Woo and Chow Yun-fat used to make before they came to Hollywood and got all neutered - and that was without realizing that it was from the same filmmaker who made the excellent A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, Kim Ji-woon. It didn't even show up on US home video, but I figured that maybe that would be rectified when his big-budget, smash-hit follow-up, The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, got its theatrical and Blu-ray release. I was offered a screener in September '08, but said, no, let someone else have it, I'll see it when it hits the big screen in a few months.
"Then MGM's lawyers got involved, saying it was too obvious an homage to THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY.
"Still, the story has a happy ending: A year and a half, a dropped conjunction, and who knows what other concessions later, Kim's 'kimchee western' is finally hitting U.S. theaters, and it is well worth the wait.
"The story starts off sounding complicated, but it's really not. It's the 1930s, and a Chinese bank has promised to turn a map to Manchuria's greatest treasure over to the occupying Japanese forces. Of course, the bank is run by weasels, so they hire a nasty Korean bandit, Park Chan-yi (Lee Buyng-hun), to rob the train transporting it and steal it back. What they don't figure on is another bandit, the eccentric Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho), robbing the same train. Though, to be fair, they should have expected bounty hunter Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung), who has pursued Chan-yi all the way from Korea, to interrupt. Now, there's treasure to be found, uneasy alliances to be made and broken, and a whole lot of bullets to be shot.
"And good lord, is there a lot of amazing action along the way. Let's start with the train robbery. Some filmmakers will quietly give us the lay of the land before launching into the action; others will present us with a disjointed mess. Kim Ji-Woon frog-walks us through the train, jumping right into the action while giving us just enough time to know what's where. Then things start happening at a frantic pace; you've got two bandits, a bounty hunter, the folks transporting the map, and a Mongol horde in, on top of, and around the train, which is moving, then not, then moving again. Things are happening fast, but the action is always clear. That's no small feat, considering just how much Kim is throwing at us.
"That's just the first big action set piece; the movie has a few more to hit us with after that, including a swashbuckling bit that has Do-won swinging between buildings on ropes while picking bandits off with a rifle, a chase through the desert that would feel quite at home in an Indiana Jones movie, and a final showdown between its title characters that both recalls this movie's namesake and displays an explosive energy of its own. Indeed, much like I would sell A BITTERSWEET LIFE in terms of John Woo, the easy way to pitch THE GOOD, THE BAD THE WEIRDis as a combination of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and Spielberg's swashbuckling adventures, but that's unfair to Kim; while he's obviously inspired by all these filmmakers, he's got his own style. The action in his movies is large-scale, fast-moving, and frequently very funny, but also just bloody and cruel enough to keep it from seeming like a complete joke; there is a sense of danger.
"(A danger that is, in fact, more real than it perhaps should be - Jung Woo-sung broke his arm during filming, and certain horse falls were cut from the film in the UK as being dangerous/harmful. An unrelated accident claimed the life of a stuntman/assistant stunt director.)
"The action, at least, is top-notch, and it makes up enough of the movie that THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD can be viewed as a success based on the excellent action sequences alone. That's good, because the connecting bits sometimes seem a little weak. It's not that Director Kim and his co-writer Kim Min-suk do the minimum to get the movie from one action scene to another, but that there are enough factions and double-crosses in the story that even these scenes seem frantic, especially in the version playing North American screens, which has had somewhere between ten and twenty minutes cut out. Even at a little over two hours, it could use some down time.
'At the time of filming, at least, this was the most expensive film ever made in South Korea, and it looks it - every frame looks great. That extends to the cast; the folks playing the three title characters are all big stars. Lee Byung-hun has even started getting some Hollywood work (don't hold G.I. Joe against him); he brings his excellent the same sort of cocky cool to 'The Bad' as he did to A BITTERSWEET LIFE, making for a formidable (but sexy) villain. Jung Woo-sung is more known as a romantic lead than an action hero, and though this movie lacks anything along those lines, there's a trustworthy confidence to 'The Good' which keeps him from being an afterthought, despite having to share most of his scenes with Song Kang-ho. Song must be one of South Korea's biggest stars (he's a frequent collaborator not just of Kim Ji-woon, but Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook), and he's also one of its most versatile. Here gets to have a lot of fun, playing 'The Weird' as a guy who is almost a caroon character, not just for he shrugs off chaos, but for how he seems both oblivious to danger and clever enough for it not to seem dumb luck. He's Tuco by way of Bugs Bunny, the main source of this movie's frantic, joyful energy.
"'Frantic' and 'joyful' are two of the best words to describe The Good, the Bad, the Weird; the sheer amount of action can wear the audience out, but it's hard to get through any of its big sequences without a delighted grin on one's face; they're executed so well and with such abandon that the extra year we had to wait seems totally worth it. 5 cats
"Seen 24 April 2010 at the Brattle Theater (Independent Film Festival of Boston: IFFBoston After Dark) "