If you get hopelessly lost watching the 2008 South Korean adventure The Good, the Bad, the Weird, don’t worry about it. You’re not alone. In fact, during the absurd and complicated horses-and-jeeps-and-motorcycles chase that ends the movie, some of the bandits ask each other, “Who’s that?” when another player shows up on the scene. It’s a fast and complex movie with a lot of moving parts, a lot of warring motivations, and enough characters that it’s almost a relief when someone dies, because it means you no longer have to keep track of that person. But none of it feels like work: This is a cartoonish, hyper-violent blast of a movie, especially once you get used to the idea that you’re not going to understand everything that’s happening.
In broad strokes, the plot is simple enough: There’s an ancient map that leads to a mysterious treasure, and a whole lot of people want it, and the three most important are cited in the Sergio Leone-riffing title. The Good is Park Do-Won, a bounty hunter who dresses like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and who’s cool enough to spin his rifle on his finger while racing on horseback. The Bad is Park Chang-yi, an ice-blooded criminal who dresses like a riverboat gambler, and who’s fast enough to spin around and stab a guy in the back of the head even when that guy has him cornered at gunpoint. And the Weird is Song Kang-ho, a gibbering, pratfalling small-time thief who nobody takes seriously, but who turns out to be just about impossible to kill. All of them want that treasure, and all of them kill insane numbers of people on their respective quests to find it.
It’s a little more complicated than that, though, as this all transpires in a sort of Asian Wild West where lawlessness reigns and all sorts of ethnic groups have grudges against each other. If you, clueless Westerner, know as little about Asian history as I do, then the movie’s web of Korean independence fighters and Japanese military leaders and assorted mobsters will probably leave your head spinning. The three title characters aren’t the only ones going after that map; they’re also contending with the Japanese army and a gang of miscreants from the Ghost Market, a sort of black-market outdoor shopping mall.
The way director Kim Jee-woon stages everything, the movie seems to take place in some sort of indeterminate past. We see motorcycles and trains and gatling guns, but we also see characters who dress like Mongol raiders and swing chain maces. My favorite random henchman is the dreadlocked, heavily scarred, crazy-muscular bad guy who totes an enormous wooden hammer, the type you’d use to hit the thing with the bell at an old-timey carnival. But some of the fights take place in slapdash shantytowns that could exist today, and the massive climactic horse-chase setpiece has a lot in common with another apocalyptic desert chase: The final highway battle in The Road Warrior. Officially, the movie takes place in pre-WWII Manchuria, but all of it feels like it’s happening in Movieland.
Despite the title and the cowboy hats and the gorgeous shots of desert landscape, The Good, the Bad, the Weird isn’t really a Western, or even a riff on Westerns. It moves too quickly for that, and its tone is too antic. It’s closer to being an Indiana Jones movie, or one of the more violent Jackie Chan joints. It’s in love with its own silliness. This is an album where legendary gunfighters get on each other’s nerves, where they’ll roll their eyes at each other before bursting into a room and killing everyone in it. Some of the action-movie moments are so gloriously over-the-top badass—like when Park Do-won shoots a sniper through his rifle’s eyepiece—that the only sane response is to giggle with delight.
There’s a joyful energy to the mayhem here. We start out with a railway shootout that more or less invents Snowpiercer, right down to the tracking shots between train cars and the gunfights between one car and another. And Kim Jee-won’s camera keeps moving in impossible ways, starting things out by soaring alongside a CGI eagle and whirling around his stars throughout. Those stars are good, too. As the Weird, Song Kang-ho brings a lovable-fuckup intensity, always willing to show his ass; he went on to be one of the stars of Snowpiercer, in fact. As the Bad, Lee Byung-hun nails a theatrical mustache-twirling strain of evil; he later went on to play Storm Shadow in the two G.I. Joe movies, and he’ll be a T-1000 in the new Terminator. Jung Woo-sung, the Good, has the most thankless role of the three, and maybe that’s why he’s the only one who hasn’t gone on to anything you’ve probably seen. But he’s got a great bemused stillness to him, something that helps anchor the movie even as it spins off into insanity all around him.
The real star, though, might be the director. Kim Jee-woon takes evident delight in all the crazy things he’s juggling: the amazing horse stunts, the opium-den seductions, the last-minute reveals that certain characters aren’t who we thought they were. It’s one of those rare Spielbergian cases where the guy is clearly having a ton of fun making the movie, and that fun actually comes through to you, the person watching it.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird was a big hit in Korea, earning back its budget several times over; Kim’s next move was to make the deeply grisly and fucked-up 2010 serial-killer thriller I Saw the Devil. Then he came to Hollywood and directed 2013’s The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first post-governorship attempt at recapturing action-movie stardom. This should’ve been an ideal match: a funny, absurdist, bloodthirsty director teaming up with a star who’d always been a gore-drenched action figure. And The Last Stand isn’t bad—it’s better than its reputation, anyway, and bits of Kim’s humor shine through here and there. (That’s on Netflix, too, alone with I Saw the Devil, if you feel like triple-featuring them.) But that was clearly the watered-down version of Kim, attempting to adjust to a Hollywood climate that had no idea what to do with him or his star. Kim’s working on a new movie back in South Korea now, and that’s a good thing: Hollywood isn’t the place for him. Maybe now he’ll have a shot at making something as insane and gleeful as The Good, the Bad, the Weird again.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
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