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Non-Review Review: The Good, The Bad & The Weird

That was fun. Really, pure unadulterated fun. A skewed trip through the Sergio Leone Westerns with the ingenuity of Raiders of the Lost Ark thrown into the mix, filtered through a modern Tarantino-esque filter of pop cultural awareness and thirst for action and violence. It’s a jumble of a million and one different things, a fresh and mostly original cocktail that leaves a rather pleasant taste in the mouth. If it doesn’t quite measure up to the classics it seeks to emulate, it can take great pleasure in the fact that it is a much more fitting tribute than anything Hollywood has produced in the last two decades.

Naked gun...

Naked gun...

The movie apes more than the basic plot of Leone’s epic – the three eponymous anti-heroes searching for treasure – it also borrows his deconstructionist tendencies. Though the ending of this film is one of the most interesting endings to a Western I’ve seen (and that’s all I’ll say), for the most part this film is determined to play with the little bits of Westerns. You know how guns never jam or backfire? They do here. You know that bit in the middle of a gunfight where the two leads stop and chat during a lull? Well, we find out what smart bad guys would be doing during that lull. Of course, there are a huge number of shoutouts to Leone’s Dollars trilogy – and most of the visual references point to For a Few Dollars More, to the point that we expect to hear Ennio Morricone chords in the background. We don’t. Unlike that other genre-messing Western released this year – Inglourious Basterds – here we have a wonderfully original score, offering a fusion of Eastern and Western styles that offers the most obvious example of the balance the film has managed. You’ll also notice a few subtle hints of the same quiet political undercurrents that tied together Leone’s Westerns (mostly his perchant for tying his narrative to big historical events, but also more general stuff) peppered throughout as well.

Simply put, the film features the best action sequences I have seen all year. All of the film’s setpieces look amazing, cheroegraphed perfectly with the finesse and humour that calls to mind Spielberg’s more playful work on Raiders of the Lost Ark. The truly jaw-dropping penultimate sequence looks like it belongs in one of the original trilogy – it’s that good. Everything is cleverly toyed with, but also professionally executed. There are moments in this film where I can’t believe they actually filmed it using stunt men, but they did. The lack of CGI is just incredible – it was something we took for granted years ago, but it’s amazing how visceral this film feels compared to the big action movies of the summer, like Wolverine.

It’s also worth noting that the film really benefits from a strong, old-fashioned bad guy (who might as well be a more stylish version of Lee Van Cleef). Movies these days worry too much about giving their bad guys extra dimensions and showy material and freudian excuses, but the execution of a compelling antagonist has nothing to do with that – at least most of the time. Don’t get me wrong, well-rounded villains are fantastic when done right, but the attempts to give them pathos or reason are generally very poorly handled. Here our antagonist is just a bad guy. A rotten egg. He’s sadistic and viscious, but not in such a way that the movie has to go out of its way to demonstrate it. His flashy moments of evil fit naturally with the flow of events and we never feel like we’re being manipulated into hating him. It’s a great performance and a great script, right there.

The casting is generally excellent, with Byung-hun Lee and Kang ho-Song standing out particularly as “The Bad” and “The Weird” respectively. As with the spaghetti Western from which this movie takes its name, the most dramatic heavy-lifting is taken by the third character listed in the title and ho-Song does Eli Wallach proud with his strange little petty thief. The locations are the other star of the film and they all look stunning – from the arid deserts to the lavish 1930s interiors. The set design is incredible on the film.

I will concede that the film stops a little bit at the start of the third act. Emulating Leone’s style is tough, and the film doesn’t really execute his style of last-minute subplot as well as he did. Still, it’s a minor complaint. The film buzzes along for most of its two hour runtime, feeling neither too long nor too short and really very strangely satisfying.

The film sizzles with visual intensity. High definition really shows off the colours of the Ghost Market or even the simple blues of the sky. The camera work is impressive – always calling to mind any number of classic American directors, but no doubt intentionally. We are always focused on what we need to be focused on, and we always know exactly what is happening. How many modern blockbusters can say that about themselves?

I will concede that I do not know enough of Korean/Manchurian/Japanese history to know exactly what the film’s subtext on Korean independence was or how that echoes through to current affairs, but I can’t help but feel that it might echo Leone’s brutal anti-war sensibilities in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. The political subtext is somewhat more global at the end of the film, but never heavy-handed or over-bearing. Much like the master himself, the thoughts are there if you want to dwell on them, but if you don’t then enjoy the explosions. Both are fantastic.

A very strong recommendation on this one. It is the best Western I have seen in years and it even left my uncle with a bit of a smile on his face with an expression of “that was odd”, but in a good way. I love it when films are odd, but in good way. A firm reminder of the power of those vintage action movies and westerns viewed through the prism of Korean independence, it’s something I recommend you give a go at least once.

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