Sunday, May 16, 2010

Excitingly Unoriginal: The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Though its MacGuffin-esque treasure quest creates mystery as to where Kim Ji-woon’s film is heading, there’s never any doubt about where this madcap western comes from. The influence of Sergio Leone is everywhere in The Good, The Bad, The Weird. From the film’s title, to its outlaw characters, to its inevitable eye-squinting three-man shootout, Kim announces his reverence for Leone’s spaghetti westerns with all the subtlety of an extreme close-up – which, of course, would be another Leone trademark. And yet while structurally Kim follows the Leone blueprint, spiritually he seems inspired by another filmmaker with a fondness for Leone: Quentin Tarantino. Until now, we’ve thought of Tarantino emulators as screenwriters or directors who try to mimic the writer/director’s much celebrated brand of pop-culture-obsessed dialogue. The Good, The Bad, The Weird reminds us that what really defines a Tarantino picture is its zestful affection for cinema itself.

Kim's film, like so much of Tarantino’s oeuvre, is an uninhibited celebration of the awesomeness of movies. It has spectacular shootouts, high-speed chases, thunderous explosions, galloping horses, a rumbling train, thrilling stunts, an energetic soundtrack, a ruthless baddy, a noble goody and a charismatic blundering goofball. All of that and more. But unlike so many modern American blockbusters, which are lazily assembled according to formula and yet have the balls to pretend they’re somehow original, Kim’s film unashamedly embraces all the ways it is a retread. If Iron Man 2 is akin to an American Idol contestant trying to create a “new” cool identity out of recycled music and lyrics, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is like a KISS tribute band, inviting the audience to rock in the here-and-now while simultaneously triggering memories of what it was like to experience this stuff for the first time. The key difference between a tired American blockbuster and this imitative Korean film isn’t a matter of authenticity or even self-awareness, it’s that Kim actually wants his film to serve as a conduit for our nostalgic flashback. To call The Good, The Bad, The Weird an imposter is to pay it a compliment.

So it is that The Good, The Bad, The Weird is filled with a spirit of childlike wonderment and enthusiasm for cinema that reminds of the fight sequences in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, the car chase in Death Proof and pretty much the totality of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even if the viewer is too inexperienced to spot Leone’s genes within this film’s DNA, no one should be able to mistake Kim’s passion for the material. The Good, The Bad, The Weird can’t be called a personal film in the sense of sprouting solely out of its director’s imagination, and yet at the same time it’s as personal a film as one can ever hope to find, as it reveals Kim’s deep, abiding love of cinema. One could bet that this is the very kind of film Kim initially dreamed about making, and thus it’s heavily influenced by the kind of movies that inspired him to want to make movies in the first place. There’s something poignant about seeing a filmmaker get to fulfill that dream, like watching an actor finally get to play Hamlet. To the person doing it, that it’s all been done before is beside the point.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird is largely a collection of rowdy action set pieces, none of them more exceptional than its first. After a swooping, bird’s-eye view of a train chugging through the desert – a shot that suggests an upcoming onslaught of CGI that blessedly never arrives – Kim gets things off to a frenetic start with an appropriately locomotive shootout that introduces us to the film’s trio of main characters. Lee Byung-hun is Chang-yi, “The Bad,” who, thanks to a brief prologue that establishes a treasure map as the ultimate object of desire, we already know is the most dangerous man in 1930s Manchuria, and who quickly reestablishes his ruthlessness by killing a woman on the train just to put an end to her irritating screaming. Song Kang-ho is Tae-goo, “The Weird,” who is plenty dangerous himself, as established by a fun follow-shot through the train that ends in an eruption of gunfire, but who is also somewhat of a dimwit. And, finally, Jung Woo-sung is Do-won, “The Good,” a stoic bounty hunter who is the last to arrive and who introduces himself with some perfectly aimed rifle blasts that immediately cement his reputation as an expert marksman. As this initial shootout unfolds, including some goons from Chang-yi’s gang and amidst some startled passengers and oblivious waterfowl, the proximity of the gunmen to one another becomes somewhat murky, but not at the expense of the cinematography, which includes some retro-cool shots of gunmen hanging out of train windows while blasting away at one another. If this sequence can’t get your heart pumping, you should see a doctor.

What Kim’s film is in the beginning, it is throughout. There’s no deep philosophical message. There’s no witty banter. There’s not much character development beyond what I’ve already described. But there is a lot of throwback action, most of it seemingly executed with minimal CGI. Indeed, at times The Good, The Bad, The Weird feels like one of those stunt shows at Universal Studios – an acrobatics revue in which no tall structure exists unless someone is to fall from it and no rope exists unless someone is to swing on it. So be it. Sure, more ammunition flies in any one shootout than these men seem capable of carrying on their bodies, but this is never meant to reflect realism. It’s meant to exhibit the extraordinary nature of cinema. And so, late in the film, when Tae-goo (“The Weird”) goes leaping from a motorcycle to a jeep driven by one of the guys chasing him, you just know that one way or another he’s going to end up being dragged along behind it. And, of course, he does. These are cheap thrills, I suppose, but at least they are also visually convincing ones.

If The Good, The Bad, The Weird has a crucial flaw, it’s providing too much of a good thing. The action goes and goes and goes, and eventually, in another Tarantino-esque flourish, Santa Esmeralda’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” kicks in just when the frenzy is in danger of becoming stale. Yet rather than allowing the action to peak right there, the gunshots and explosions carry on until we really are ready for something else. That’s the price of being so reliant on action, epic though that action is in this picture. Of the three main characters, the only one who entertains in his own right is Song in the Eli Wallach role. The other two are merely archetypes. Replace these actors with three American stars, say even Samuel L. Jackson as “The Good,” Mickey Rourke as “The Bad” and Robert Downey Jr. as “The Weird,” just to name three guys currently appearing in another (lesser) action film, and Kim’s film would be the summertime box office smash it deserves to be – not just because it would have more marketable leads, but also because the star power of those leads would give these thin characters some default heft. Still, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is quite rousing as-is. And in an era when so many Hollywood movies seem to be most concerned with selling their sequels for the promise of future thrills (and dollars), it’s refreshing to come across a film so happy to be in the here and now, even if that here and now looks a lot like movies of yesterday.


Steven Santos said...

Glad that you wrote about the movie and responded to the joys it offered. Oddly, for all the obvious influence of Sergio Leone on the premise and a couple of key scenes, the movie it most invoked for me was "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and possibly a bit of "The Road Warrior" especially in that final chase scene.

I know I may be in the minority on this, but I felt what made homage work in this film as opposed to Tarantino's recent output was the filmmaking. While Kim's influences are obvious, I still believed his compositions and use of color were more his own. Tarantino never quite commits to anything, which is why the occasional Leone-like shot and Morricone musical cue never fits in with what I felt were so many flat moments. It always felt like he was announcing his love for those films rather using them as a starting point for something more.

As I said when I wrote about it, I'm not going to delude myself that "The Good, The Bad, The Weird" is a deep or thoughtful film. But I don't think it pretends to be anything else, which is why I responded to it as pure adventure. Like "Raiders", I thought it was a fun throwback to the serial films from way back.

Jason Bellamy said...

Steven: Thanks. I'd been saving your review until this movie came to D.C., and reading it now I see we came to some similar conclusions.

I hadn't thought of The Road Warrior, but that seems obvious to me now. And I also wish I'd been as explicit as you are about some of the ways the film is decidedly not Leone:

""Weird" moves at such a relentless pace, the opposite of Leone's drawn out symphonies of silence. Though Kim has as a strong eye for widescreen compositions as Leone, he does not really borrow a whole lot from him visually."

Very true. But while I would certainly call myself a conflicted Tarantino fan, I'm not sure I'd agree with you here:

"It always felt like (QT) was announcing his love for those films rather using them as a starting point for something more."

Or maybe I should say, I don't think that observation does much to distinguish a QT film from Kim's film. True, as you noted earlier, Kim does seem to fold Leone's influence into a consistent style that I suppose we could call 'his own.' But I think Tarantino does that, too. Perhaps in Tarantino's case his style is more tonal than visual.

Anyway, we both thought of Raiders watching this movie, and I agree that it is a fun throwback ... both to the serials and even to the early 80s, when there were more old-fashioned stunts. That's one of the things that Indy IV got so wrong. In its long car chase, for example, it all looks and feels like it plays out in front of a greenscreen -- because, of course, it does. It's a crude approximation of make-believe. This is realized make-believe, if you understand my meaning. And there's an undeniable difference. There just is.

J.D. said...

Excellent review! I've seen the trailer for it and read several glowing reviews which definitely has me curious to see this film. Your review clinched it, though. Time to check this one out. The combo of films it pays tribute to sound too good to be true and I'm always up for an unabashed entertaining film.

Hokahey said...

"Kim's film, like so much of Tarantino’s oeuvre, is an uninhibited celebration of the awesomeness of movies. It has spectacular shootouts, high-speed chases, thunderous explosions, galloping horses, a rumbling train, thrilling stunts, an energetic soundtrack, a ruthless baddy, a noble goody and a charismatic blundering goofball."

This sounds like a MOVIE! I would love to see it.

Jason Bellamy said...

J.D. & Hokahey: If/when you get around to seeing it, I'll be curious to know what you think. It's a shame it isn't easier to find in theaters.