To say that Kim Jee-woon’s The Good, the Bad and the Weird, a love letter to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and to the Manchurian action films popular in South Korea in the late ’60s, is problematic would be a vast understatement. Kim’s boisterous pastiche is essentially about how meaningless it is, embracing whole-heatedly the nebulous “weird” third of the film’s ungainly, eponymous triangle. This western doesn’t champion the “good guy”—or at least the guy wearing the whitest shirt. That guy stays in the narrative’s expansive background for the most part while the Bad and especially the Weird vie for the spotlight. Not one of our protagonists’ motives remains consistent from start to finish, not even the Weird’s own amoral compass, in this case his lust for treasure. The only side these guys are on is their own, making the film a knowingly cacophonous exercise in futility.
Kim and co-writer Kim Min-suk combine elements of two western subgenres that have become defined by their ambiguity. While the spaghetti western internalized its desert setting into its mercenary anti-heroes, the Manchurian action film prided itself on its hybrid nature, often conspicuously employing anachronistic plot devices like motorcycles or even skis. Though The Good, the Bad and the Weird is set in the 1940s, the appearance of military jeeps, a brass deep sea helmet and even the very treasure that everybody’s trying to get their hands on are meant to be jarring (T-Rexes and astronauts could show up at any moment). The film is about the insignificance of history in what was once strictly considered to be a period-based genre, a conceptually fascinating ideological foundation to be sure, but also one that’s practically worthless.
In a film that is essentially one long chase scene, it’s only natural that Yoon “The Weird” Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho) should lay hands on the map first and run for what feels like a long time. He zips along in a motorcycle with his wingman Man-gil (Ryoo Seung-soo) in a sidecar and a broad, toothy smile on his face. On his trail are the impassive members of the Japanese military, a group of more-wooly-than-feral Manchurian bandits, Park “The Good” Do-won (Jung Woo-sung) and Park “The Bad” Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun). They all want the map for personal gain, none of them even secretly harboring high-minded ideals, like a sense of national pride or possibly just pugilistic entitlement, close to their heart. What you see should be what you get.
But it’s not. The vast expanses of the film that lead up to its final interminable final chase and shoot-out scenes are meant to lull the viewer into a sense of generic certitude when it comes to assessing our antiheroes’ motives. Our trio staunchly present themselves as absolute archetypes, which is supposed to make the inevitable revelation of their discomfort in those self-same chosen roles all the more unexpected. In one of his handful of talking scenes, the Good reveals to the Weird that he has no clue why he’s fighting now that Korea is occupied by Japan. All he knows is that there’s profit to be made even if it’s obvious from his distant body language that he’s more than a bit put off by that kind of shriftless philosophy. Likewise, the lusty Weird disrupts our expectations by fantasizing about using his portion of the loot to buy a farm and become a homesteader. Even the Bad spends most of his time posturing self-consciously, his eyes bulging in a permanent anime-like leer when it comes time to prove to the viewer why he’s known as the Finger-Chopper. This is the one time Jung Woo-sung has a legitimate reason for turning in a labored performance: That’s what his role demands.
The trouble with that kind of defeatist logic is that it’s just an intellectually justified last hurrah for a still modestly successful genre. Both The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford show that there are still plenty of uncharted operatic vistas for filmmakers ambitious enough to take up where Leone left off. But there’s not a lot that can be said about a film that excuses its inert, distended action scenes by arguing that its nihilistic characters and, by extension, their patchwork world simply cannot exist on their own terms anymore. There’s no tension in The Good, the Bad and the Weird and no satisfying justification given for its existence save for a throwaway line from the Good about how life in their time is essentially a matter of either chasing others or being chased. That kind of proudly moribund thinking makes you wonder why Kim is eulogizing a form of entertainment that’s not dead yet.