Kang-ho Song in The Good the Bad the Weird

With a title like The Good the Bad the Weird (apparently punctuation and conjunctions are hopelessly old-fashioned these days), director Ji-Woon Kim’s new film — currently screening at the Shattuck Cinemas — is bound to be a letdown. By intentionally drawing comparisons to one of the greatest westerns (and, arguably, one of the greatest films) of all time, The Good the Bad the Weird has been set up to fail. That said, however, there’s still enough good stuff in the film to justify a recommendation, especially for those who favor non-stop action.

Kang-ho Song (The Host, J.S.A.: Joint Security Area) stars as Yoon, a bandit attempting to rob a passenger train as it hurtles through the wastes of Northern Manchuria in the early 1940s (though the film deliberately obfuscates on this point, Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”, cut in 1939 and briefly featured herein, is the period giveaway). He has some competition, however: gun-for-hire Park Chang-yi (pretty boy Byung-hun Lee, last seen as Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) is also aboard the train, which, unbeknown to Yoon, is transporting a representative of the Japanese government — and the valuable map in his possession.

Chang-yi has the firepower, but Yoon has the luck, and with the assistance of partner Man-gil (Dal-su Oh from I’m a Cyborg, But That’s O.K.) escapes with the map. When Man-gil determines that it reveals the hiding place of a vast Q’ing Dynasty treasure (the specifics of which aren’t revealed until much later), the game begins. Yoon is determined to get there first, but Chang-yi is hot on his heels — and so is Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung, looking not unlike Lee van Cleef when on horseback), a bounty hunter eager to claim the 300 won reward on Yoon’s head.

This paper-thin plot culminates in one of the best chase sequences you’ll ever see as our three anti-heroes, their assorted hangers-on, and the Japanese army race across the desert towards the treasure. It’s a bravura 15-minute sequence sadly let down by the Mexican stand-off finale that’s the film’s most obvious homage to (or rip-off from) Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The stand-off is poorly shot and bereft of the white-knuckle tension built up during the analogous scene in Leone’s film, and the payoff unimpressive: there’s a character revelation that’s intended to make us gasp but instead evokes a shrug. Sadly, the film ends on a confusing and unsatisfying note — especially when we find out what the Q’ing Dynasty’s been hiding all these years.

That said, there’s much here to enjoy, starting with the performance of Kang-ho Song. Song is a superb comic actor who’s also more than capable in action sequences, and he brings  a touch of Indiana Jones to his character. Despite a ridiculous asymmetrical hair-do, Lee makes for a passable villain, and Jung is fine as the stolid good guy.

Though there are times when Mo-gae Lee’s cinematography descends into shaky-cam incoherence, the film also features skillful camera work and moments of considerable beauty. Lee favors bright primary colors throughout, emphasized by yellow, red, and blue gels that lend a comic book aura to the proceedings, and he’s also a master of the crane shot.

This isn’t the first Asian tribute to the American (or, for that matter, European) oater. In 2000, Thai filmmaker Wisat Sasanatieng gave us the incomparable Tears of the Black Tiger, a heavily stylized western with lush romantic overtones; and in 2007, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike produced Sukiyaki Western Django, in which two samurai clans clash in the Old West while delivering their dialogue in pidgin English.

The Good the Bad the Weird doesn’t break any new ground — in fact, of the three films, it’s probably the most slavish imitator of the style — but it’s an entertaining alternative to the routine Hollywood action-comedy.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...