Shootout at the Eastern corral
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 14, 2010
If Quentin Tarantino ever gets around to making a cowboy movie, the result will probably look a lot like "The Good, the Bad, the Weird." Billed as an "oriental western," the film, by South Korean director Ji-woon Kim, is a high-concept homage to the oater, complete with a train robbery, buried treasure, shootouts galore and more horses than you can count.
It's also set in a multi-ethnic, Japanese-occupied Manchuria of the 1930s and features an all-over-the-map soundtrack including surf guitar, mariachi trumpet and a snippet from "Moonlight Serenade," played as a dying man, who has just been stabbed in the back of the neck, crawls, gagging on his own blood, across the floor.
Old-fashioned it ain't.
What it is is cracking good fun, especially if your love of the genre is tempered by a healthy irreverence for its conventions. It's long, at two hours and 10 minutes, but rarely feels that way, thanks to nonstop, often bloody action and stunning stunt work, set in a brisk, propulsive story (co-written by the director with Min-suk Kim).
The film's most obvious reference is to "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," updated with a trio of Korean characters at its center. In the Clint Eastwood role is Woo-sung Jung as laconic bounty hunter Do-won (a.k.a. the Good). As in the 1966 Sergio Leone classic, Do-won is pursuing a very, very bad guy: bloodthirsty bandit Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee). In that pursuit, our hero must forge a shaky alliance with a third man, Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song). Tae-goo is the Weird of the title, a clownish train robber whose morals are as flexible as his rubber mug. In the course of getting his ill-gotten gains, he has come across what appears to be a treasure map, written in Russian and presumably identifying a cache of Chinese jewels and gold worth untold millions. Everybody wants in on it.
Also in the hunt: the Japanese army, outfitted with machine guns and artillery, and what appears to be a nomadic group of Mongol horsemen armed with battle axes and maces. It's crazy, but in a good way.
Speaking of which, the costumes alone are a crazy-quilt pastiche of styles, from the authentic -- at least for Dodge City -- to the just plain bizarre. Do-won wears a western-style cowboy hat, vest, boots and leather duster, and carries a rifle, which he manages to fire one-handed while swinging from a rope. Armed with pistols, Tae-goo sports a quilted military jacket, goggles and an aviator cap. At one point, he dons a metal diving helmet for protection.
At the far end of the fashion spectrum is Chang-yi. Clad in a skinny, pinstriped frock coat, and with multiple piercings in one ear and a spiky mop of black hair falling across his eyes, he's a manga version of the traditional western villain, minus the black hat. His weapon of choice? Whatever's handy -- including a flying dagger that he uses to nail a centipede crawling on the wall, whereupon he pounds the knife in even further with a series of impossibly accurate pistol shots.
There's nothing very deep here. No grand moral questions, or anything like that. It's a live-action comic book. More good than bad, and with a liberal sprinkling of weird, it's got a rock 'em, sock 'em energy that knocks the dust off a dying breed of storytelling.
Contains lots of violence, crude language and brief partial nudity. In Korean, Mandarin and Japanese with English subtitles.