The Good, The Bad, The Weird
Tired of action films that have been so sliced and diced in the editing room that you can’t follow what’s happening? Have I got a film for you. All you have to do is read a few subtitles, keep your tongue firmly in cheek and be willing to accept the notion of Korean cowboys. Just remember – before they became classics, people made fun of “spaghetti westerns”. If “ramen westerns” ever achieve the same stature, director Kim Jee-woon could become as famous as Sergio Leone.
Studio: MPI Home Video
Film Length: 130 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080i
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: Korean DTS-HD MA 5.1; Korean PCM 2.0
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: July 17, 2008 (South Korea); Apr. 23, 2010 (U.S. limited)
Blu-ray Release Date: Aug. 17, 2010
It’s the 1930s. Japan occupies Korea, driving many of its inhabitants into Chinese Manchuria, where the Chinese army is spread so thin that large swaths of the countryside resemble a lawless frontier.
Kim Pan-joo (Song Young-chang), a wealthy Korean expatriate with a private army of desperados and no scruples, sells a supposed treasure map to Kanemaru, a Chinese banker. Then Kim instructs his chief henchman, Park Chang-yi a/k/a “The Bad” (Lee Byung-hun), to steal back the map. The Bad is a stylish, ruthless killer with attitude to spare. Complimented that he’s the best outlaw in Manchuria, he responds: “Only in Manchuria?” The Bad saddles up with a group of thugs and attacks the train on which the Chinese banker is traveling, in his own car and in high style, guarded by a complement of soldiers.
But The Bad isn’t the only one interested in the train. Along for the ride is a notorious thief named Yoon Tae-goo a/k/a “The Weird” (Song Kang-ho, star of The Host). An absurdly comical figure given to pratfalls and outlandish attire (his preferred headgear is a bombardier’s helmet), The Weird is a top thief because he’s perpetually underestimated. The Weird doesn’t know anything about the treasure map, but he gets to the Chinese banker’s car first, and he ends up scooping up the map with other valuables, much to the frustration of The Bad and his men.
Watching the proceedings from a distance is Park Do-won a/k/a “The Good” (Jeong Woo-seong), a professional bounty hunter. With his long cape and rifle and a hat that inescapably calls to mind a certain Man with No Name who was “The Good” in a similarly named film, Park carries a stack of wanted posters with him, and it’s purely a matter of business to him whether he picks up The Bad or The Weird (or both, if possible).
But that’s not all. Even further off is a group of bandits that’s somehow learned about the treasure map and is waiting patiently to steal it from whoever acquires it. Underboss Byung-Choon (Je-mun Yun) joins the growing list of desperate men determined to acquire the prize. By the time GBW reaches its conclusion, the list will have expanded to include the so-called Ghost Town Mob – Ghost Town being a frontier trading market established by Korean expats – and the entire Japanese army.
The map does eventually lead to a treasure of sorts (and I cracked up when I saw what it was), but for most of GBW, the map is a classic McGuffin. The film is all about chases, shootouts, stand-offs and narrow escapes. There is history among the three main characters. The Bad and The Weird once had an encounter that’s the stuff of legend, but no one knows the details. A member of The Bad’s gang makes the mistake of asking about it, and the response guarantees that his error will not be repeated. For his part, The Good is on a personal mission to bring in an outlaw known only as “Finger Chopper”. As the name suggests, this bad guy is an especially monstrous fiend, and The Good is certain he’s established “Finger Chopper’s” true identity – it’s The Bad.
The film’s decor and costumes look like someone with an unlimited budget went wild designing a theme park, but the fact that much of the film was shot on location in the harsh conditions of the Manchurian desert gives the constructed sets, as well as the performances, a layer of authentic grit. The action sequences are often comical in the style of the early Indiana Jones films, but they’re also just as fluid and thrilling as those films were, which is a quality now almost non-existent in American filmmaking. And like Harrison Ford, the lead actors did many of their own stunts, and it shows.
If the opening train robbery sequence isn’t enough to persuade you, wait for the Ghost Town shootout. When the first images of Ghost Town appeared, I kept looking for Thunderdome. Now I suspect the visual homage was intentional, because soon enough there were people flying through the air on ropes, just as they did in George Miller’s post-apocalyptic arena. And the spectacular final showdown in the desert, with multiple groups chasing and fighting each other in vehicles, on horseback and even on foot, has a formal elegance and a skill at arranging multiple moving objects in a frame that I haven’t seen since The Road Warrior.
I’ve read a few complaints that the plot of GBW doesn’t make much sense, and it probably doesn’t. So what? I’ve never watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the plot. Does anyone?
MPI’s Blu-ray provides a bright, clear and colorful transfer with excellent detail and a slight hint of film grain here and there. This is not a natural-looking world and shouldn’t be mistaken for one. Colors tend to be exaggerated and on the saturated side, but without added noise. Occasional aliasing can be spotted, notably on the railroad ties in the distance early in the film, but this may simply reflect the limits of a 2K digital intermediate.
In a few early close-ups, I thought that some of the faces, especially on The Weird, looked overly smooth. However, they didn’t look waxy, and I could still see pores and facial hair. Nor could I detect any other signs of inappropriate digital tampering, such as motion artifacts. A little later in the film, I suddenly realized that The Weird had absolutely perfect teeth, the kind that only a movie star gets, and certainly not a 1930s outlaw. That’s when I decided that vanity was more likely at work than DNR.
There’s a PCM stereo track, but why would anyone ever want to listen to this film in anything but discrete 5.1 sound? There’s hardly a moment when there isn’t something happening in the rear channels. Gunfire, bullet hits and ricochets are all obvious candidates, but the sound designers for GBW took things even further. At one point, The Good is trotting along on his horse with The Weird tied up on foot behind him. The Weird is on camera talking, and you hear him in front with the horse’s hooves behind you. Similar effects are placed throughout the film. This is a disc for people who feel their rear speakers aren’t being used enough.
And let’s not forget the atmospheric score credited to Dalparan and Jang Yeong-gyu. How can you have a proper western without a twanging guitar? Like everything else on the DTS lossless track, the score sounds terrific.
Except where otherwise indicated, all special features are in standard definition with an aspect ratio of 4:3.
Behind the Scenes (15:02). Video footage of the cast and crew working on various sequences of the film. No narration is provided, and it helps to have seen the film, which makes it easy to identify which sequence is on the day’s call sheet. The scale of the production is just as big as the finished film suggests.
Cannes highlight reel (16:9 and 4:3) (3:02). Footage showing the favorable reception received by the film’s director and three stars at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
Making of #1 (3:22). An EPK-style short focusing on the physical challenges of making the film.
Making of #2 (1:02). More an ad than a feature, this short promo promises viewers an exciting film.
Interview with actor Song Kang-ho (2:41). The actor who plays “The Weird” describes his character as a cat with nine lives and laughs as he recalls hoping that the other two leads would have all the action scenes (they don’t). He also recalls christening the director “The Tough”.
Interview with actor Lee Byung-hun (2:57). “The Bad” talks about his initial uncertainty over accepting the role and the rigors of filming in the Chinese desert.
Interview with actor Jung Woo-Sung (2:45). Soft-spoken and almost shy in real life, “The Good” recalls the extremes of nature on location and declares his pride at the final result.
Interview with director Kim Jee-woon (3:14). The writer-director explains the genesis of the project, comments on the acting ensemble and talks about the importance of meeting (or exceeding) audience expectations.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is included in HD. At startup the disc plays trailers in standard definition for Stolen, Made for Each Other, The Human Centipede: First Sequence and The Killer Inside Me. These are not otherwise available from the “Bonus” menu.
I recognize that, for many American viewers, the whole idea of a “ramen western” like The Good, The Bad, The Weird is just too, well, weird. The executives in studio suites are counting on that mentality to support their endless remakes and retreads. Meanwhile, they’ve forgotten (if they ever knew) what made the originals good. Foreign filmmakers like Kim Jee-woon obviously love American cinema, but they don’t just copy it. They reinvent it, and something new gets added in the process. That’s why the work feels different. That’s why it’s exciting.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub