By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
The cheerfully appalling mayhem in “The Good the Bad the Weird” makes the high body count in “Kick-Ass” look like a measured study of violence in today’s society.
In short, this South Korean offering is a wild and demented movie. It is also, at various times, rather ingenious, funny, overly derivative and too long.
This Eastern Western is set in the 1930s, a time when Japan’s imperial impulses were overrunning Manchuria. We’re first introduced to a lethally effective hired gun (Lee Byung-hun), whose task is finding a very valuable treasure map.
But what should be a simple job is muddied by a couple of interlopers. A Korean bandit (Song Kang-ho, the hilariously dopey-faced hero of “The Host”) has blundered aboard the swiftly moving train where the map is being held, and somehow manages to get his paws on it.
Meanwhile, a stoical bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung) is also on the train, taking his own shots at the map. These three characters will stick with the quest, as the bandit finds himself relentlessly pursued by the others.
There are some amusing events along the way, but the real point is an epic chase scene that takes up quite a bit of the last 40 minutes of the picture: Not only are the three antagonists racing across the blank Manchurian desert, but so are a couple of armies, one horsebound, the other armored (the Japanese military has gotten into the game, too).
Director Kim Ji-woon, who also did the much quieter ghost story “A Tale of Two Sisters,” is gleefully tipping his hat to the spaghetti western tradition (which the title alone evokes).
There’s also a genre in Korean cinema that looks at the period of Japanese occupation, and at times director Kim seems to hint at a more profound anger underneath his nutty action premise, as though he were using the ridiculous excesses of the shoot-’em-up to vent a little resentment about Korea’s historical status as a long-occupied state.
But that gets lost in the games he’s playing with the Western, and with the sheer energy it takes to stage this many death scenes in a single movie.
Even if that’s too much for you, the movie boasts flavorful turns from its three main actors: Song is sly and funny, Jung is channeling Henry Fonda and Lee Byung-hun (seen to advantage in the “G.I. Joe” movie) is skillful at playing a cool character while simultaneously spoofing a cool character. They remind you that even a mechanical exercise in violence can make something of itself with real actors and defined, if cartoonish, characters.