Korean filmmaker Kim Ji-Woon describes his sprawling shoot-’em-up, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, as a “kimchee Western.” The label uses his country’s signature dish to hint at Ji-Woon’s seasoning of the archetypal American genre, the way Sergio Leone’s Italian gunslinger epics like the original The Good, the Bad and the Ugly picked up the nickname “spaghetti Western.”
Ji-Woon’s energetic but lightweight homage to Leone’s classic revisits the basic premise and virtually reshoots several of Ugly’s archetypal sequences. Weird tracks three quick-shooting characters as they follow a map to the alleged lost treasure of the Qing Dynasty. In addition to morally upstanding bounty hunger Park Do-won (Jung Woo-sung), and sadistic assassin Park Chang-yi (Lee Byung-hun), goofy petty thief Yoo Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho) provides the “weird” leg of this particular tripod.
The story takes place in deserts and villages in Manchuria during Japan’s military expansion across Asia before World War II, but the settings and costumes seem timeless: Do-won wears a cowboy hat and duster, while one of Chang-yi’s goons looks like one of Genghis Khan’s bodyguards. As Tae-goo, Kang-ho gives a madcap but compelling performance, but his co-stars lack the presence of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, their counterparts from the original.
At times, Ji-Woon crams the frame with details, like the scene in which Tae-goo strides the length of a passenger train crowded with colorfully garbed passengers, or his arrival at an enormous bazaar that includes elephants, camels and giant Buddha statues. At a time when computer effects dominate big action scenes, Weird builds to a desert chase with live horses racing between real explosions. With Jeeps, motorcycles, Japanese soldiers and mace-swinging bandits all in pursuit, it’s like The Road Warrior without the road.
The Good, the Bad, the Weird ultimately amounts to an exercise in style, virtually free of emotional weight. The canned, phony Leone quality to some of the set pieces makes Weird like a Chef Boyardee Western, but Ji-Woon’s enthusiasm for the genre delivers it piping hot.