An eye-popping adventure in 1930s Manchuria pays tribute to the classic American western.
Thrill-seekers, rejoice. Here's the summer blockbuster you've been waiting for -- no, dreaming of. "The Good, the Bad, the Weird" is to Hollywood's puny efforts what the Large Hadron Collider is to a Hula Hoop.
This Korean gunslinger extravaganza is a tornado of blazing energy and death-defying stunts with no patience -- or need -- for exposition. The film is all about thieves, and from its title onward it ransacks familiar sources. The desert landscape, steam locomotive and horseback robbers we meet at the start give us our bearings. This is a Wild West story transplanted to one of the world's more exotic corners.
The setup: In lawless 1930s Manchuria, a bunch of people are after a treasure map. Any plot baggage heavier than that would just weigh you down as you hurtle headlong into this exhilarating joy ride. This is a boy's adventure for grownups, the A version of a B movie.
Scooping up stock characters and situations from Sergio Leone to Steven Spielberg, the film refines the ingredients and fuses them into an eye-popping extravaganza. There's a quiet bounty hunter in a cowboy hat (Woo-sung Jung, radiating Clint Eastwood cool), a sinister killer wearing undertaker's black (Byung-hun Lee, in the Lee van Cleef role) and a trigger-happy bandit who's in it only for the money (Kang-ho Song, the scene-stealing star of "Thirst" and "The Host" channeling Eli Wallach).
Fighting over treasure
The film opens with a railroad heist that becomes a superchase by train, horse, foot and motorcycle. At a couple of points when the breakneck spectacle verges on chaos, director Ji-woon Kim brings in a bemused bandit chief who asks his aide, "Any guess what's going on?" Once we're reminded, it's on to the next superlative bullet ballet.
The Weird wants the treasure. The Bad wants the map for his nefarious boss. The Good wants the bounty on the Bad's head. (There's a reward for the Weird, too; he's crestfallen to learn that he's worth the price of a used piano.)
The action rolls from shantytown to frontier opium den and back out to the dusty plains, with heroes, villains, marauders and the Japanese army in a lunatic free-for-all.
The movie is often deliriously funny, but never a parody. The filmmakers are far too fond of the myths they're invoking to lampoon them outright. Ideology comes in for a good mocking, however. The film takes a cynically dismissive approach to the region's war-torn history. In the 1930s Japan occupied the Korean peninsula. Many Koreans dispersed to China, supporting themselves as best they could, sometimes as robbers. Those big issues are at the edges of the story; the only patriotic call for Korean independence is mocked as a fraud's pipe dream.
Politically incorrect though it may be, this Eastern western is a breathtaking piece of work. The editing crackles, frames are beautifully composed and the color scheme is luscious, with sun-bleached vistas contrasting against sumptuous gold, cobalt and crimson interiors. And ever-present jets of arterial red.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186