Once upon a time, western genre used to be an American filmmaker’s playground with its good vs evil theme & characters in shades of either black or white. Then in the 1960s came an Italian filmmaker named Sergio Leone who introduced his own take of the Wild West which incorporated stylised violence, grey-shaded characters & spectacular music to go with its character-driven story. Enduring the test of time, Leone’s version grew so much in reputation over the years that it is now synonymous with the very definition of ‘westerns’ and even though many filmmakers around the world have been influenced by it & have paid homages to those spaghetti westerns, the only one in my opinion that really succeeds in recreating that same magic & aura on the silver screen is none other than this cinema from the eastern side of the world.
From the director of South Korean masterpieces like A Bittersweet Life & I Saw the Devil, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a slick, stylish & rousing adventure of gunshots, violence & vengeance that masterfully blends together the elements it borrows from Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy & Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark to bring on screen an exciting & entertaining spectacle infused with delicious pop-culture references. As perceivable from its name, it is a refreshing take on Leone’s The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and even lifts its basic plot line from that film. Being a huge fan of Leone’s spaghetti westerns, I was very skeptical of this film as its major source of inspiration is one of my top 5 favourites of all-time but in the end, this South Korean epic simply exceeded all my expectations by delivering an immensely enjoyable & hugely satisfying experience and is an instant classic that never takes itself too seriously.
Set in the deserts of 1930s Manchuria, The Good, the Bad, the Weird tells the story of three gunslingers (two outlaws & one bounty hunter) whose paths cross each other while in pursuit of a treasure map. The Bad is a ruthless assassin who’s hired to acquire a map that is being carried by a Japanese official onboard a train. The Good is a bounty hunter hired by the Chinese rebels for the seizure of the same map & is promised the bounty on The Bad as his reward. The Weird is a petty train robber who ends up getting to the map before the other two but is unaware of its significance. Strongly believing that the map points to a buried fortune, the Weird refuses to sell the map & heads towards the destination on his own while being chased by both The Good & The Bad and as the story progresses, an escalating battle for the map occurs where we see Manchurian bandits & Imperial Japanese army joining the chase for the possession of the map that ultimately concludes with a predetermined Mexican standoff finale that has a slight twist to it.
Kim Jee-woon is one of Asian cinema’s most respected filmmakers & has tackled a wide range of genres in his illustrious career. Engaging from its opening moments, Jee-woon’s salute to Leone’s classic is an absolute treat to watch and his direction here is as dynamic & impressive as the film itself. Featuring gunslinging action of supreme quality at regular intervals, the film is also encapsulated with rib-tickling humour that offers plenty of laughs throughout its runtime and is a roller-coaster ride of emotions from start to finish. Written with clear imagination that places an original plot over an adapted story, the narration feels very smooth with not a single moment of dullness. The production design is astonishing as the period depicted in the film feels pretty authentic. Cinematography has a nostalgic feel to it & captures the wilderness of the desert quite wonderfully while editing beautifully balances its 136 minutes of runtime with cleverly paced narration. And last but not the least, the soundtrack presents carefully selected tracks of existing music & original scores that wonderfully accompanies the drama & amplifies the overall experience to a great extent.
Coming to the performances, the cast delivers a strong & confident performance as their respective characters, which are quite fleshed out in the script itself. Jung Woo-sung plays Park Do-won (The Good); an eagle-eyed bounty hunter who is after the bounty on The Bad but later forms an uneasy alliance with The Weird in order to get to him. Lee Byung-hun is in as Park Chang-yi (The Bad); a merciless bandit who’s hired to acquire the map but ends up pursuing it for his own reasons. And finally we have Song Kang-ho as Yoon Tae-goo (The Weird); the petty robber who, after stealing the map, is always on the run as he’s being chased by everyone from bounty hunters to bandits & even Japanese army. The performances by the trio is very good but it’s Byung-hun & Kang-ho who ends up impressing the most as The Bad & The Weird, respectively. Although Do-won does a fine job in The Good’s shoes, he is no Clint Eastwood. Byung-hun is my favourite of the three, to be honest, as he puts up one of the most stylish on-screen villains of the decade & stole almost every scene he appeared in. And Kang-ho provides the maximum comic relief & renders his character with effortless brilliance.
Ingeniously directed, deftly written, brilliantly narrated, strongly performed, splendidly photographed, smartly edited & passionately scored, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a fiercely paced, rip-roaring adventure of explosive entertainment & endless fun that elegantly fuses the storyline of The Good, the Bad & the Ugly with the frenetic pace & uninterrupted action of Raiders of the Lost Ark to come out as one magnificent tale that feels surprisingly fresh & original. On an overall scale & in my opinion, there hasn’t been a western as amazing, exciting & entertaining as this one in the 21st century at least, and not only it is the greatest western of the past decade but also one of world cinema’s finest films. Every moment of homage is treated with respect, every moment of action is inventive & intense including the final showdown and every sequence feels freshly reimagined & brimming with expert use of humour. One of the best films of its year & one of the greatest South Korean films of all time, Kim Jee-woon’s nod to spaghetti western classics is a sheer masterpiece. To summarise The Good, the Bad, the Weird in a single sentence, ‘Sergio Leone would’ve been proud’.