Chang-yi Park (Byung-hun Lee) is a dangerous killer obsessed with his reputation, hired to steal a mysterious treasure map from a train in pre-World War II Manchuria. When the heist is foiled by a bounty hunter (Woo-sung Jung), oddball thief Tae-goo Yoon (Kang-ho Song) escapes with the map. Things quickly escalate and soon all three men are in pursuit of the map, as well as several gangs and the entire Japanese army in a race across the barren plains.
Director Ji-woon Kim has an impressive resume, including black comedy The Quiet Family (remade by Takashi Miike as The Happiness of the Katakuris), Woo-esque action thriller A Bittersweet Life and one of the greatest horror films of the past couple of decades in the form of A Tale of Two Sisters. For this outing, though, he was dealing with the highest production budget in Korean film history and ups his scope considerably.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird features a series of massive set-pieces, including a sprawling shoot-out in a dingy market and the big finish – a high-speed chase/battle across the plains involving gangsters on horseback, cars, motorbikes and artillery. These are wonderfully staged and shot using a myriad of camera tricks, some of which are revealed in the ‘behind the scenes’ featurette. What is most impressive, though, is that whilst watching the film, the viewer is not left wondering how they pulled off a tight dolly around a horse in full gallop, rather you are simply swept along by the spectacle.
As an action film, this is a resounding success. The gunfights are inventive and fun, mixing excitement with humour at every turn. It is hard not to be entertained. If there is a flaw, however, it is the lack of depth beyond the surface thrills. The characters, particularly Kang-ho Song’s “Weird” have backgrounds and baggage, but this is always presented flatly and the characters neither develop nor reveal hidden layers as the narrative unfurls. This holds the audience back from being fully invested in proceedings and also stops The Good, The Bad, The Weird from attaining true greatness.
Similarly, there are tentative hints at deeper themes that are ultimately left unresolved. There are varying attitudes towards Korea’s fight for independence and the crossfire between Japan and Korea. There are nods towards the cavern between responsibility and self-preservation. But these issues remain glossed over background detail when they could have added a lot more underlying weight.
The technical work is superb throughout. Dazzling camerawork aside, the production design is intricate and always thoroughly convincing, evoking a period and a place rarely seen on film screens before. All three lead actors do solid work, with Byung-hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life, JSA, G.I. Joe) obviously having great fun playing evil, complete with jet black goatee and eyeliner. But the film undoubtedly belongs to the versatile Kang-ho Song (Thirst, Memories of Murder, The Host), blending sympathy with danger and proving – if there was any doubt – that he is a major international talent.
A rollicking adventure yarn, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is terrific fun and pretty much a guaranteed good time. It just seems a shame that there couldn’t be a deeper sensibility from a director with a track record of doing exactly that.
There’s a nice selection of extras including a behind the scenes segment, Cast & Director interviews, deleted scenes, alternate endings and a trailer.
Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.