The fate of three Korean men changed the day their paths crossed on a train in Manchuria during the 1930s. A plan is put into motion to steal a map riding on that very train that leads to something extremely valuable. Chang-Yi (Byung-hun Lee), the most wanted bandit in Manchuria, is hired to steal the map from the train. Meanwhile, Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), a bounty hunter, is hired by the Japanese army to bring in Chang-Yi. Not to mention the fact that both the Japanese army and a group of Asian outlaws have caught word about the map being on the train and want it for themselves. A clumsy train thief named Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song), who always manages to find himself on the winning end of a gunfight, is already on this train and in possession of the map, which has certifiably painted a bullseye on his back. The real question isn’t who will manage to obtain the map in the end, but what is actually on this map that is garnering everyone’s attention?
Westerns aren’t what they used to be. Just about any fan of the genre will agree with that statement, but they do still get it right every once in awhile. What are some of the better westerns since the early ’90s? Tombstone and Unforgiven are probably on that list somewhere. It’s more than likely that the 3:10 to Yuma remake from 2007 and Appaloosa from 2008 are two of the better westerns from recent years. It’s safe to say that The Good, The Bad, The Weird is the best Korean western to date, but it’s not like it has much competition. The only other film that comes close is Sukiyaki Western Django by Japanese director Takashi Miike. The film has Miike’s fingerprints all over it, but the fact that it was shot in English hurt it more than anything else. The Good, The Bad, The Weird may not have much competition, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a great film. It just makes it that much easier to have the film be in a class all on its own.
The highlight of the film is every shootout the characters find themselves in. The choreography is done so well that you almost feel like you’re a part of the action taking shelter behind a wall to reload or taking that last deep breath before making a run for it. The film is also an incredible mix of action and comedy. Some of the comedy included in Korean films, or any foreign film for that matter, either goes over people’s heads when it’s shown in other countries or just isn’t funny at all. That’s not the case here. The comedy was definitely at least chuckle-worthy all the way through — nearly everything Yoon Tae-goo does is hilarious in some form or another. Most westerns seem to have the legitimate bad ass featured either as the main character or a strong supporting character. To name a few examples, 3:10 to Yuma had Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) and the Dollars Trilogy had the man with no name (Clint Eastwood). The Good, The Bad, The Weird has three. Do-won, Chang-yi, and Tae-goo are all intriguing in their own right. Do-won is an amazing shot, rarely misses, and just wants to do what’s right (for the right price, of course), Chang-yi can’t stand being second best to anyone, and then there’s Tae-goo. Sure, he may be a simple train thief with a bounty on his head that’s equivalent to a used piano, but there’s more to his character than the goofy dimwit he portrays himself as.
While the film is incredible, some will find that the storyline is practically wafer thin. The storyline is basically, “somebody else has a map we want, so let’s take it,” in a nutshell. It wasn’t really an issue for me and I’m usually one of the first people to point out that a film has a weak story. It gets the job done here or everything else is done so well that it doesn’t matter that the story may or may not be weak in the end. The wondering of what the map is and why everyone in Manchuria wants it was very reminiscent of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, which is meant purely as a compliment.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird is a fantastic blend of absorbing action sequences, beautiful cinematography, strong performances, and a dash of lighthearted comedy. It’s safe to say that I’m not the biggest western genre fan around, but it’s films like this that make me want to dive head first into the genre and not look back.