Jee-woon Kim’s film, “The Good, the Bad and the Weird”, received plenty of acclaim when it was first released in 2008. Time Out London described it as “Thrilling as hell” while Ain’t it Cool news.com described it as “A pure piece of entertainment… a must see”. IMDB.com currently rate it at 7.3/10 while Rottentomatoes.com give a tomatometer reading of 84%. All very impressive stuff but the question was always whether this Korean Western could live up to its billing or if it was, in the end, more “Shanghai Noon” than “Shane”.
The premise of the film takes us back to 1930s Manchuria. A map purporting to reveal the last great treasure of the Qing dynasty is going to be on a train travelling with a high-ranking Japanese official.
Three rivals descend on the train to obtain this map:
- There is the Good guy: a bounty hunter called Park Do-won (played by Woo-sung Jung, above left)
- There is the Bad guy: an unprincipled bandit called Park Chang-yi (played by Byung-hun Lee, above right)
- There is the Weird Guy: a petty criminal/train robber called Yoon Tae-goo (played by Kang-ho Song, above centre.)
What follows is a life-and-death race to claim the untold riches with plenty of fights, thrills and spills along the way.
And there you have it. As simple and as straightforward as 1,2,3.
Sadly, that is all there is to it as well. The plot is no more involved than that, and neither are the characters. They remain the ‘Good’, the ‘Bad’ and the ‘Weird’ throughout – mere character types, as if the initial ‘pitch’ meeting for the film was the final time they were ever thought about… ever. They remain self-conscious caricatures throughout and no more depth or realism has been granted to them than that. There are plot twists tagged on towards the long-awaited end of the movie (It’s 139 mins long!) but they are of the ‘who actually cares’ variety. And that is the problem with a movie that has a race to the finish like this: its success depends absolutely on whether you care if one of them gets to the prize. I didn’t. I couldn’t.
By way of explanation, the dramatist, Henrik Ibsen, wrote:
“Before I write down one word, I have the character in mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul. The rest comes naturally as soon as I am certain of the individual in every aspect of his humanity. I know his exterior too, down to the last button – how he stands and walks, how he conducts himself, what his voice sounds like. Then I do not let him go, until his fate is fulfilled.”
Jee-woon Kim’s film, by contrast, concentrates only on the exterior and is the poorer for that. Let me explain further:
- The Good character is devoid of charisma – he suffers the most in the shade of the other two much larger performances and is left wilting as a bit-part player as a result. Woo-sung Jung plays him as po-faced throughout, occasionally squinting as if he’s remembering he’s supposed to be Clint Eastwood. Only it’s all too mannered and he looks too damn polished. Indeed he looks like he has just walked into shot in some new threads he has just picked up from his local Gap or Uniqlo store. And he’s pretty pleased with himself about it too. The camera gets bored of looking at him very quickly and so does the audience.
- More appealing is Byung-hun Lee‘s turn as the Bad character. He comes with a high pedigree of acting behind him but he seems to have forgotten it all. Sporting what can only be described as an emo mullet to permanently cover one eye like a sulky teenager, he looks more ready for a Chanel advertisement than the wilds of Manchuria. His performance itself is amped up to ridiculous pantomime villain levels (which I’m hoping was the director’s insistence rather than down to his own acting instincts) and he languidly moves at a snail’s pace all the time. This is maybe because he is so cool and so good at being bad that he doesn‘t need to dodge or duck or run when bullets are raining down. Instead he just strolls round in his black gangster’s outfit – or, gratuitously, in his pants at one point – glugging whisky (why never Malibu?) and showing off his smirk like… like… every 2-dimensional cartoon villain I’ve ever seen since the year dot.
- Worse still is Kang-ho Song as “Weird”. Only he isn’t weird. The only thing he does that is remotely weird is when he kills one character by kicking a stick up their bottom. This happens three-quarters of the way through – his name therefore is a misnomer. Really he should be renamed “Unfunny”. That’s really why he’s in the film; some much needed comedy value as his character bumbles along clumsily – à la Inspector Clouseau – in the hunt for the treasure. Only he isn’t funny. Not once. In fact, try imagining the most charmless comedian you can possibly imagine and then picture him behaving charmlessly for over 2 hours. Now you can feel my pain. This Benny Hill/Martin Short/Martin Lawrence performance is the worst part of the movie and, unfortunately, it takes centre stage.
But I don’t blame the actors. After all, I’ve seen them all act much better in much better films. I blame the writer-director, Jee-woon Kim, who has turned a big budget adventure movie into a soulless yawnfest. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots and lots of cinematic setpieces: grand explosions, lengthy fight scenes and epic chase sequences set in the desert. But it’s all dull and meaningless if you can’t ground the film in some kind of reality or humanity. The 3 characters are all ridiculously good shots, so much so that they can charge down the entire Japanese army and pick them off one by one without so much as a skinned knee to show for it. The Good character also swings around on a rope at one point in the “Ghost market shootout” scene like he’s having the time of his life at a Universal Studios stunt show. Good for you, I say, but could one of the Chinese bandits just put me out of my misery and shoot the guy already. He’s a sitting duck up there after all. And don’t get me started on the lunacy of Weird’s ‘nine lives’.
That’s my main problem with “The Good, the Bad and the Weird”. It’s horrifically indulgent. It wears its Sergio Leone/Tarantino influences too readily on its sleeve but adds nothing itself. It just makes you think of switching the film off and putting theirs on instead. At one point, halfway through, I resigned myself that it had more in common with a romp like “Romancing the Stone” and tried to enjoy the ride. Then it became clear that all the pace, humour, charm, tension and thrills had all been left out. It also seems to have been made almost solely for Korean audiences as I cannot imagine anyone else enjoying such cod-philosophical lines like “Every Korean has a sad story” or the Japanese general shaking his fist and saying “Damn Korean” like something out of Sergeant Bilko.
Possibly I am being harsh. Others loved it after all. I had high hopes for this film myself. I was in South Korea around the time this movie came out and I can remember it caused a great commotion. Knowing that Jee-woon Kim’s work has been well-regarded over recent years increased my expectations further. Who knows, as a pure popcorn, ‘leave your brain out of it’ film it may well pass muster. It looks good after all: the cinematography, the costumes, and the set design are all worthy of praise.
Only that ‘window dressing’ veneer cannot disguise that it’s just not enough without the basics: good characters and a good story well told. No matter how good other movies are that Jee-woon Kim has made this certainly is not one to be ranked among them. For all the many thousands of tiresome ‘dead-eye’ shots in this movie, the movie itself is spectacularly off target.
It’s not good. In fact it’s really quite bad. Weird.
IN SHORT: All style and no substance. An empty (cartridge) shell of a movie.
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
A complete misfire.
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