REVIEW: The Good, the Bad, the Weird Lousy for Viewers, Worse For Horses
What we commonly call genre films -- westerns, romantic comedies, horror and action films -- may have been born in Hollywood, but the great proof of their durability is that no one can claim ownership of them: They belong to everyone, to interpret and revitalize as they wish. That explains how a Korean filmmaker would be inspired to make his own version of an Italian western, which itself was inspired by Hollywood movies that mined America's "Westward, ho!" mythology, a case of the American experience being reflected back at us through double mirrors. But Kim Jee-Woon's The Good, the Bad, The Weird is no The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and it doesn't so much build upon its namesake as climb over its back on its way to somewhere else. There's no modesty in Kim's movie, not even the false kind. It's faux-Leone baloney.
We expect and want filmmakers to be audacious, either to bring us things we've never seen before or to show us old things in a new way. And Kim's boldness is entertaining, at least for short bursts. But too often he appears to be having fun at the audience's expense: He may have taken great delight and a lot of care in setting up intricate action sequences or broadly comic vignettes, but that doesn't necessarily make them good. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is far too pleased with itself; it spends more time calling attention to its cleverness than it does actually being clever.
That's true from the picture's first big action sequence, which is lively enough by itself, although it does nothing to tip us off to the great slog ahead. (The Good, the Bad, the Weird goes on, sometimes interminably, for more than two hours.) In that first sequence, a scruffy, pudgy bandit with an affable face, Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho, a veteran of several pictures made by that other well-known Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, including The Host and Memories of Murder), strides through a string of cars on a train speeding through the Manchurian desert, in search of a valuable something-or-other which may or may not be a treasure map. It turns out that Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun), a sullen club-kid criminal type with multiple ear piercings, is also after the same something-or-other. He makes a dramatic entrance on horseback, running alongside that train with Douglas Fairbanks-style aplomb. There's a third figure who cares less about the coveted something-or-other than about the two ne'er-do-wells chasing after it: Do-won (Jung Woo-sung) is a noble, unsmiling bounty hunter. If the other two guys are, respectively, the weird and the bad, Do-won is the boring -- but you wouldn't draw much of an audience if you advertised that in a movie's title.
Plenty of other folks come and go during the course of the picture, including the Japanese army and a bunch of ragtag robbers in furry headgear, all of them after the same mysterious treasure. The plot is convoluted and inconsequential, less spaghetti western than corkscrew noodle, but that isn't the problem here. It doesn't even matter that the story is sometimes heedlessly anachronistic. (It's supposedly set in 1930s Manchuria, though an early crowd scene includes some ladies wearing strictly contemporary frocks, and I also spotted a trucker hat or two.) It's simply that the long stretches of dullness between Kim's stylish curlicues make the picture as dry as the desert itself. Kim may borrow some of the visual flourishes of Sergio Leone, but he understands little about his role model's sense of pacing. Leone's pictures have an elegiac, graceful sense of movement; even his action sequences tend to speak more of seduction than outright aggression. Kim is too impatient for that approach. When his movie isn't manic, it's dreadfully snoozy. That's surprising, considering Kim has some experience building and sustaining moody suspense: His 2003 A Tale of Two Sisters is a dreamy, enigmatic horror fantasy, low on logic but certainly high on atmosphere.
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