It's easy to label Kim Ji-woon's Koreans-in-Manchukuo action epic an homage to spaghetti westerns; there's a guy running around through the film in a cowboy outfit, after all, and the English title obviously references Sergio Leone's most famous film. It's also tempting to compare Kim's movie with Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, since both films graft spaghetti-western motifs onto a World War II playing field. But Kim's choice of location brings to mind a wider, older range of associations. The Chinese setting as a stomping ground for foreign freebooters (not to mention the Japanese invaders) reminded me enough of Terry and the Pirates to make me think the grand old comic strip could yet be made into a movie -- maybe by Kim himself. We're also in the same general geographic and chronological neighborhood as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Kim's film partakes of some of the same pulp spirit, above and beyond the obvious spaghetti influence.
The story, however, is straight out of spaghetti-land. A badass mercenary with anime hair is hired to take a treasure map from a Japanese official on board a train. The money man can put him on the train with a ticket, but Mr. Bad, Park Chang-yi, says bandits don't use tickets. Instead, he's going to stop the train and sack it with the help of some rough customers. It's a fine plan, but our mastermind didn't reckon upon another bandit getting on the train earlier on the route. This is Yoon Tae-goo, "the Weird," the earthy, occasionally bumbling but always dangerous counterpart of Tuco and other "Ugly" characters in Italian westerns. He ends up with the map, with only a vague idea of what it means, after a tense standoff with the Japanese and their collaborators that has a literally jolting climax when the train finally hits Mr. Bad's obstacle. The chase begins with the Bad guys in pursuit through cities and deserts, along with the aforementioned cowboy, "the Good" aka Park Do-won, in pursuit of the Bad. The cowboy's a bounty hunter, of course, who suspects Bad of being the infamous "Finger Chopper." Along the way Weird and Good join forces for a time before all three protagonists gather at the map's destination for one big plot twist and the archetypal three-way showdown.
Before that, however, comes the highlight of the picture, a stupendous mounted and motorized stunt-happy chase scene that transcends the spaghetti signifiers to remind you for a moment of The Road Warrior, a moment later of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and later yet of Stagecoach. It may also remind you of Tarantino for a moment when Kim borrows music from anachronistic sources as the cowboy intervenes. Like everything in this film, the chase through the desert goes on a little too long, but there's so much going on, such constant inventive activity, that you wouldn't want to take a chance cutting footage. Certain films should be allowed to err on the side of excess, especially when excess seems to be the point of this particular project.
Despite the wartime setting, when Korea was still ruled by Japan, Kim's film doesn't have a deep thought in its dear little head. It does strike the requisite cynical note for a spaghetti homage when the Weird falls in with an avowed independence leader who only wants to sell the map back to the Japs. The characters are ciphers, the acting exercises in fashion, except for Song Kang-ho as the Weird. In his motorcycle outfit and goggles he comes the closest to period authenticity, and Song (who played the Catholic priest-turned vampire in Thirst) really taps into the exuberant exasperation actors like Eli Wallach and Tomas Milian brought to the original "ugly" template. He also seems to be the audience-identification character, rebelling against the absurdity of some of the situations and eager if not desperate (with good reason, we learn) to avoid the obligatory shootout finish. I've seen Song in two films now and liked him both times, and this is now the second Kim Ji-woon film I've seen (after A Tale of Two Sisters) that I can recommend. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is not profound, and it never quite taps into the cruelty that some say defines the spaghetti genre, -- and it cops out on its ending, which would have been perfect otherwise -- but when you're in the mood for energetic action in a different-yet-somehow-familiar setting, this will make two hours pass pretty easily.
Here's an English-subtitled trailer, uploaded to YouTube by hyxr.