Blockbuster 101

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom), 2008. Directed by Ji-Woon Kim, written by Kim and Min-suk Kim. Starring Kang-ho Song (the Weird), Byung-hun Lee (the Bad), Woo-sung Jung (the Good), Ryu Seung-su, Song Yeong-chang, Son Byeong-ho, and many, many more.

Oh, you want a blockbuster do you? Lots of noise, explosions, some crazy plot that takes you through the air and to the most remote and exciting parts of the globe? How about a decent plot, character development, a touch of humor now and then? Yes, I know, I know you don’t always need that–any number of sequels, not to mention the whole Mission: Impossible franchise speaks to that. This summer’s not even really begun and the probably woeful Iron Man 2 had pulled in nearly $200 million. Next there’s Braveheart 2: Robin Hood, followed by yet another Shrek (I’ve lost count how many of those awful movies have been made), and the list goes on and on.

I know, I know: you’ll see most of those. Most likely I will, too. But if you want action, adventure, flying, explosions, noise, humor, violence, and incredible characters, well, there’s a sort-of micro-Blockbuster opening tomorrow: Ji-Woon Kim’s The Good, the Bad, and The Weird. Imagine the child of Sergio Leone and Steven Spielberg, only it was adopted and its biological dad is Mad Max. Despite that summation it’s purely original. And it’s my favorite movie of the summer.

What a movie! Howard Hawks once said that the ingredients to a successful picture are “three good scenes and no bad ones.” Well, director Kim and his fellow screenwriter Min-suk Kim seem to have taken that to heart: there’s no bad scenes in GBW, and a good half dozen great ones to go along with the many good scenes. Yes, it’s in Korean, which I know is a problem for the multitudes, especially having personally witnessed five different people last fall complaining about the many subtitles in the great Inglorious Basterds. Well, I have to say that the punishment for those dismal souls is having to sit through Jonah Hex later this summer because you couldn’t bring yourself to read some words at the bottom of the screen.

The plot: A Korean businessman with Japanese sympathies (Song Yeong-chang) hands over a leather treasure map to a lackey who is to deliver it to a Chinese businessman traveling by rail. Later, this same businessman approaches the Bad, Park Chang-yi (played with steely relish by Byung-hun Lee), and asks him to steal the map away from the Chinese businessman and bring it back to him, so he (the Korean) can sell it to the Japanese. He’ll be paid twice for the same map.

The Bad is, of course, a bad-ass. When the Korean businessman presents this sleek bastard a train ticket, the Bad barely notices, instead slicing the ticket in half with a golden dagger. “I don’t ride the train,” he sneers. “I stop the train.”¬†And stop it he will, using a giant bonfire and the collected talents of a nasty band of evildoers, including a giant who kills his prey with a cartoon-sized mallet (I half expected it to have ‘Acme’ printed on the side).

But there’s a problem: the Weird, one Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song, a great actor, the star of The Host), was also on the train. And quietly–well, as quietly as he’s capable–he has robbed the Chinese businessman of gold, jewelry, watches, wallets and… the map. This giggling buffoon sees the train robbery as a gift–it makes for an easy getaway.

Until the Bad starts firing at him. The Weird prances away, legs lifted high as bullets from the Bad kick dust around him. He leaps on his motorcycle and zooms away across the Manchurian desert with his bounty.

How hard will it be for the Bad to catch up? Hard, because he’s being shot at by the Good, Park Do-won (the stoic Woo-sung Jung, who is excellent but has to carry comparisons with Clint Eastwood on his shoulders). The Good is a bounty hunter, initially after The Weird, but now content to try and nail either one of his adversaries. He’s also a Korean, looking for ways in which he can get resources to liberate his homeland from the Japanese. One of those resources is treasure. With that, the chase is on.

My initial reaction to The Good, the Bad, and the Weird was this: if this fucking movie can keep this pace up, then I’m in for one fucking ride.” Well, you’re in for one fucking ride. The opening train robbery is as good as anything Spielberg has ever given us, and I include his great movies like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s a stunning sequence of movement in and out of the train, ferocious gunplay, and Kim has a great eye: we are never confused as to where people are on the locomotive or off. Character is developed efficiently and with great wit: we know exactly the motivations of each man, know what they’re capable of, and you know what? We’re ready to follow them through 150 minutes of slam-bang fun.

The action sequences are suberb, including a gunfight at the Ghost Market (where stolen goods are traded). The Weird has this map, doesn’t really know what it is, and shares it with his dopey sidekick, Man-gil (Ryu Seung-su). The Weird’s excited to get Man-gil and his own Grandmother out of the slums, and eagerly prepares a hasty exit to the X on the map.

That is, until the Ghost Market Gang realizes what he’s got. They show up, kill Man-gil, and proceed to shoot up the place. Not before the Good makes an entrance, literally flying over the market (with the help of a dolly and some heavy-gauge wire) and shooting at bandits.

Again, Kim’s nimble camera zooms through tight alleys, into crowded slums, rides beside the Good as he soars overhead, and all the while we’re familiar with this deadly warren and all the people who are out to kill our heroes. This being a tribute to Leone, we know damn well there’s going to be a Mexican standoff. What we don’t realize is that there’s a Mexican standoff not just between the three protagonists, but between two gangs and a fucking army.

The Japanese loom over this story, similarly to the way the Nazis do in Raiders, though they’re less involved–this is a battle between people, and the devious Japanese serve as the perfect foil (just as the Ghost Market Gang does as well.) The treasure is going to be a surprise, which is no surprise, really, but what it turns out to be is perfect, both to the plot and the politics as presented in the movie. Knowing it won’t ruin the picture, whose excitement doesn’t hinge on our desire to know the true nature of the bounty.

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird borrows from a ton of sources: Raiders, Leone’s films, The Road Warrior (except here horses, cars, and motorcycles are the vehicles), and many others. The plot twists around, into crazy territory: a moving train, a black market, the sleek rooms of the rich and powerful, the Manchurian desert, opium dens, and the front lines of the very early stages of the Pacific front in World War II. Each and every one is a marvel, a triumph of set design, cinematography, and a director who knows how to make his actors shine in every scene.

Honestly, there’s no better action film you’re going to see this summer. Of course I don’t know that, but in 33 years of patiently waiting in line for the summer blockbuster (starting with ’77s Star Wars), and watching these things get measurably worse since the 80s, I’d be pretty God-damned surprised if I was wrong.

It’s all here: three great characters leading the charge, great actors portraying them with equal parts verve, humor, and even to a degree a sense of genuine pathos. And yet the film is never maudlin (unlike Spielberg), nor does it descend into loony slapstick (though it has its moments of great physical humor.) Three good scenes and no bad ones.

Well, The Good, the Bad, and the Weird passes with flying colors. So you can drive to your local mall, sigh a deep sigh as you know that you’ve just coughed up another ten spot for a pair of cheap plastic glasses and two hours of the same kind of fun a KFC dinner bowl will get you, and come home and wonder if there really isn’t anything else out there to watch.

Well, buddy, there is. If you can bother to pry yourself away from the mainstream, read a few subtitles, and learn the tiniest bit about the Japanese invasions of China and Korea, well, The Good, the Bad, and the Weird is for you. If that doesn’t appeal to you, fine. But don’t blame me for Knight and Day. After all, you get what you deserve.

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