Produced, Written, and Directed by the highly rated Jee-woon Kim, who also gave us the twisted and thrilling ‘I saw the Devil’ and the creepy atmospheric K-horror ‘Tale of Two Sisters’, this is a rip-roaring, high-octane Eastern Western adventure from start to finish. It’s also a film that – at the time of release – was the most expensive movie in South Korean cinema history, although that’s now been exceeded by Joon-ho Bong’s more recent film – Snowpiercer.
The plot is remarkably simple. An assassin, Chang-yi (the Bad), is hired to steal a treasure map from a Japanese official who is travelling by train. A thief, Tae-gu (the Weird), also happens to be operating on the train as Chang-yi derails it and begins his merciless slaughter of guards – living up to his ‘bad’ persona with style – in his search for his prize. A bounty hunter, Do-won (the Good), also turns up at the scene to claim the bounty on the head of Chang-yi, whilst Manchurian bandits also observe from a distance as they also have an interest in obtaining the map so that they can sell it on the Black Market. In the midst of all the violence and carnage, the map inadvertently ends up in the hands of Tae-gu. If I’m starting to make it sound complicated then I will sum it up like this: Tae-gu (the Weird) has a treasure map, and everybody else wants it. That’s pretty much it, but the lack of any complexity in the plot doesn’t really matter. It’s there to serve a purpose, and that is to fuel two hours of solid action, shootouts, chases, general mayhem, and carnage, with a large dollop of humour thrown in for good measure.
As I just stated, the film is not driven by a convoluted plot, nor by meticulous character development, but rather its action set-pieces, photography, stunning visual presentation, and stunt work. Some of these set-pieces were so long, imaginative, and intricate that it must have taken a hell of a long time to film them with such choreographic perfection. When I say this, I particularly have in mind the chase sequence near the film’s climax where the Good, the Bad and his gang, the Manchurian bandits, and the Imperial Japanese army are all chasing the Weird on a variety of transport such as horses, motorbikes, and military vehicles, whilst at the same time trying to blow each other to pieces. The scene just seemed to go on and on and on, relentlessly, with barely a second to come up for air, and with a real danger of the viewer becoming high from an overdose of thrills. It was an astounding bit of film-making, made all the more impressive by the apparent lack of CGI and the great use of some rather daring stunt work. As a side-note, the actors involved in the movie apparently did their own stunts – one of which resulted in a broken arm for Woo-sung Jung.
The photography is fantastic with some great scenes of the Mongolian Steppes on display throughout, and the whole film has a very bright and colourful look, emphasising the colorful action being played out onscreen. Some scenes are quite violent and gruesome, but this was balanced well by the overall playful mood, as well as the instances of effective wit and physical comedy scattered liberally throughout. Probably the aspect of the movie that I liked the most was its refusal to take itself too seriously and instead just throwing masses of energy into ensuring that the audience was having as much fun as possible. The overall direction from Jee-woon Kim is top notch with some great imaginative camera work, solid editing, and a handful of very impressive continuous shots. Admittedly, he is one of my favourite film directors and just has an amazing ability to make all of his work look so damn stylish!
Byung-hun Lee is at his usual charismatic best as the pretty but totally evil bad guy, but it’s the excellent Kang-ho Song (the Weird) who really steals the show as a crazy thief, possibly in the way that Eli Wallach was really the star of the show in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. And just like Eli, he brings to the film most of the wit, banter, and physical comedy that keeps the film from ever steering too far away from the fun at its core. Just so there’s never any doubt whilst watching that Kang-ho is supposed to be the funny one, he also wears an amusing hat. Woo-sung Jung as ‘The Good’ is probably the least charismatic of the movies leads and, on reflection, he’s probably also the most boring. Let’s be honest, Clint himself didn’t exactly have the most dynamic range of facial expressions or voice, but he still somehow had a great screen presence – one that I admit is hard to explain. Woo-sung Jung just didn’t have that presence about him and looked like a guy that wanted to be in the background and not be noticed. Still… it’s a minor quibble really.
As is expected from the title, this is a Western-style adventure that borrows from and pays homage to several films – the most obvious one being, of course, ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly‘. Fans of the genre will have fun picking out these moments and trying to match them to their original source. I certainly did. But even if you’re not a fan of the genre, I still can’t recommend this film highly enough. It doesn’t really matter if you hate Westerns, or didn’t particularly get on with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. There’s enough fun, action, thrills, and style here to make it enjoyable for most and will certainly keep you entertained for a couple of hours.
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