Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"The Good, the Bad, the Weird" Review

Off-kilter Korean neo-western “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” is a frenetic genre mash-up packed with visceral, loopy violence. That isn’t a complement so much as it is a description.

Suffice it to say, if you’re into a modernist, freewheeling foreign take on Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” with cartoony characters and outrageous action, you’re going to have a blast; if you’re looking for a substantive or meditative reflection on the period or the original film, you’re in the wrong line.

Personally, I’m caught between the two perspectives. I appreciate the pure Peckinpah punch of the gunplay, but was in equal parts bored and bewildered by the overall film. Perhaps the principal flaw in writer/director Ji-woon Kim’s script is that he indulges in too much of a good thing. His action sequences are a lot of fun, and the über-stylized retro/modern aesthetic delivers bizarre and inventive visuals like a gunslinger in a deep-sea diving helmet.

But the deafening sound effects and quick cutting style wear thin if not appropriately paced, and “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” is almost relentless in its drag race to the final showdown. I’m loathe to draw a comparison to “Transformers” here, but Kim proves that even good action has a threshold, and there are times in his film where it’s easy to let your eyes glaze over.

In its more quiet moments, the story, a very loose retelling of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” follows a band of misfit thieves who come into possession of a treasure map sought by both Chinese thugs and the Japanese military. What’s maybe most interesting about the film is seeing the conventions, chronology, and geography of the western customized to fit eastern ideology, and China’s Taklimakan desert stands in for Manchuria circa 1940.

The tone is played as loose as the history, however, and Kim is never bogged down by self-seriousness or the oft-stringent requirements of a period piece. “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is closer to a gleeful “Kill Bill” in tone than South Korea’s own operatic, ultraviolent “Oldboy,” and benefits from it. Kim easily leapfrogs from hard-hitting shoot-outs to charming comedy, a phenomenon that has everything to do with his incredible cast. Each of the title characters, Park Do-won (Good), Park Chang-yi (Bad), and Yoon Tae-goo (Weird), brings with him a distinct tonal octave that lends the film some much-needed variety. My lone gripe in this department is that it would have been nice to get to know them a little bit better. As it stands, their rifles seem to have far more to say.

And for many, that won't be an issue. I’ve no question that there exists a very appreciative audience for this film—I’m just not it. Nevertheless, I’m only too happy to report that everything basically works. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous, the performances are stellar, and the action is kinetic—There’s just too much of it. By the end of the two-hour engagement, what should be a satisfying, visceral finale comes off as extravagant hoopla.

As viewers we shouldn’t be conditioned to expect non-stop action, because once you pass the threshold, there’s a diminishing return on adrenaline, impressive as any sequence that follows may be. “The Good, The Bad, The Weird” gets all its forward momentum right, but could benefit from applying the brakes more frequently.

Then again, maybe that reckless pace is what made it such a fast, fun ride to begin with.


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