The Positive, the Negative, and the Questionable Attribute

Some might say that the cowboy genre is a distinctly American genre with its familiar motifs and archetypes. Oh, they’d be right. Sure enough. But consider the masterworks of Italian filmmakers of Crobucci  and Leone and the great era of spaghetti westerns. And if Europeans can tell tall tales of gunslinging outlaws in the lawless wild frontier, then why not Asian filmmakers as well?

Asian cinema and American wild west cowboy flicks have had a fun history together. When John Sturges made the classic Magnificent Seven in 1960 American audiences got a taste of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) without even knowing it.  Wisit Sasanatieng relocated the wild west to his native Thailand with Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), a super saturated tribute and parody to American westerns and melodramas. Jackie Chan teamed up with Owen Wilson for the kung-fu cowboy comedy Shanghai Noon (2000), and cult weirdo Japanese director Takashi Miike made Sukiyaki Western Django in 2007.


Speaking of Sergio Leone and Asian cowboy movies, I think this might be a good segue into today’s film; Ji-woon Kim’s revamp and retelling of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) with the South Korean western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008).

A few of Kim’s earlier films might be known to western audiences. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) became The Uninvited (2009)—another in a slew of foreign horror films to be remade in America—and Kim’s first film, The Quiet Family (1998) was remade into Takashi Miike’s wild musical cult classic The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001).

The Good, the Bad, the Weird features many of the familiar character types and settings of its original spaghetti western counterpart, but where Sergio Leone lingers and builds tension and atmosphere, Ji-woon Kim is chiefly preoccupied in what will propel the action, and thus is not quite as rich of a film. If The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a masterpiece (and for my money, it is) then The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a modest success, but it has enough fun tricks up its sleeve to make for an enjoyable action comic chase movie.


Leone’s film was an epic, lyrical saga about three individualistic men (played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and the scene-stealing Eli Wallach) searching for buried treasure in the sun-parched wild west (actually filmed in Spain) while the horrors of greed, lawless violence, and the encroachment of the Civil War keep getting in the way. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a great and subtle anti-war movie, and considering Leone’s feelings about World War II, it is a safe guess to presume that it was quite deliberately referencing fascism, occupation, and (in one scene) the death camps. It was Leone’s most epic and expansive film up until that time and it beautifully represents the struggles of three tiny men who are swept up in the broader scale of the intrusive and rather impersonal force of war.

Kim attempts bits of this. There is mention of troubles in Korea and Japanese occupation is a central element to the setting, but it’s never handled as seriously or consistently as in Leone’s film. The Good, the Bad, the Weird is set in 1930s Manchuria with a strange treasure map stolen from a Chinese banker aboard a train. The setting, tempo, and clothing give it an immediate Indiana Jones type feel. Many private parties become very interested in the missing map, but it ultimately falls into the hands of the Weird two-bit train robber, Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song from The Host and Thirst). The Bad hitman, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee from Three Extremes and Hero), the Good bounty hunter, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), a rabble of Manchurian bandits, and the entire Imperial Japanese Army are soon all in hot pursuit of this one rather odd misfit thief. Nobody actually knows what the map leads to, but everybody seems to agree it is worth the senseless slaughter of countless lives. Like Clint teaming up with Eli Wallach, the sharp-shooting bounty hunter catches up with Yoo Tae-goo and they develop an uneasy alliance…occasionally.

The gears now in motion, the plot can finally evaporate.


We don’t know much about Park Do-won (the Good) and he is a fairly stagnate character with little interesting to do if it’s not action-oriented. Park Chang-yi (the Bad) has a bit more of a back-story, but mostly he’s just dead-eye glares affixed to a metrosexually be-togged swagger. Yoon Tae-goo (the Weird) takes on the bulk of the film’s intrigue and his character is a lot fun. Eli Wallach’s performance as Tuco may have stolen the show in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but Van Cleef and Eastwood were still fascinating characters with compelling inner turmoil. The new Korean take on things is decidedly thinner. For a while it bothered me that this South Korean re-imagining of one of the greatest western movies of all time was far more shallow than its source material, but I can treat it more as a sly homage that is merely trying to be a good rough and tumble rollick through brothels, black markets, and deserts. If that is all it is trying to be then I can forgive any lack of comparative richness and appreciate The Good, the Bad, the Weird as a fun stylish shoot ‘em up. And, boy, is it stylish.


There are several great action sequences in this film. The opening train robbery and hijacking is one of them. Not only is it slick, fast, and charmingly violent it also features some of the most memorable music in the whole movie. One thing that made Sergio Leone’s films so great was Ennio Morricone’s phenomenal and innovative iconic scores. Their strange jarring sound effects, twangy guitars, piercing vocals, haunting whistles, and the odd use of Pan flutes and Jew’s harps made them powerful and energetic and really helped establish the mood. The remake’s score (composed by Dalparan and Yeong-gyu Jang) is pretty good (though perhaps not as memorable as a Morricone piece), but it was those opening shots of the train set to those incredible blaring brass instruments that really set the tempo for the action that was to follow. It carried the spirit and promise of wild west fun in those first few notes. The shootout on the train, Yoon Tae-goo stealing the map, Park Chang-yi stopping the train and going on a shooting spree with his thugs, and Park Do-won finding his bounty is a blast to behold. Another thing Ji-woon Kim does to remind us of classic western flicks is the frequent use of zooms. It is very noticeable, but also very serviceable to the feel of the movie.


There are a few fun shootouts in the Ghost Market (one of which where Tae-goo comically dons a diving bell to protect his head from gunfire) and the three main guys, of course, reenact the brilliant standoff at the end, but perhaps the very best action sequence comes from the big chase before they find where the map leads. Tae-goo speeds across the desert on a clunky motorcycle (complete with sidecar) with the map in his coat. Totally exposed, he is spotted and pursued by the Manchurian bandits, Chang-yi and his goons, and the Imperial Japanese Army. Music going, guns blasting, and dust spewing, the bandits and Chang-yi’s men fire at each other from their puffing steeds and at Tae-goo until the Japanese whip out their Gatling guns and viciously mow down the horsemen from their jeeps. Park Do-won finally shows up and his eagle-eye is no match for any army…as the scene anarchically demonstrates. The scene is pure Indiana Jones and Yoon Tae-goo even skids along the dirt floor on his belly while he hangs on for dear life to a rope coming out of the back of a speeding jeep. This sequence escalates wonderfully and is choreographed exquisitely and there are a lot of explosions.


Naturally it’s tough to hold a candle to a movie as great as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this movie does a respectful job of paying tribute to it in its own way. You still can’t beat that final showdown between Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood, and Eli Wallach. And you can’t really beat the scene where Tuco is beaten by Angel Eyes (Van Cleef) and the corrupt Union guys while the band plays a haunting melody just outside in the prison camp. And you just can’t beat the scene where Blondie (Eastwood) ignites the canon with his stubby cigar or when Tuco frantically races through the cemetery looking for the grave with the treasure to Morricone’s fantastic “Ecstasy of Gold.” You can’t beat those. Those scenes are immortal. Those are some of the best scenes in movie history let alone western movie history. So Ji-woon Kim doesn’t attempt to tarnish them. He makes his own western movie in some of the familiar spirits of the 1966 classic. OK, so he does do the standoff, but he makes it different enough that you shouldn’t be too mad.

 

So what did I really think of The Good, the Bad, the Weird? I liked it. It’s a fun and stylish action movie with some great sequences, loads of wild west flavored violence, and a welcome dose of humor (supplied chiefly by the Weird). Essentially it is a movie chiefly populated by loud abrasive explosions and overly elaborate poses. I know I’ve compared it way too much with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but this film really should be taken on its own and compared more with contemporary high-octane action movies. Leone’s film is more lugubrious and biting and it’s really more of a character study than an action movie (although it has its fair share of action too). The Good, the Bad, the Weird was South Korea’s most expensive movie so far and you can tell a lot went into it. As a film it’s pretty decent, but when comparing it to modern action flicks it stands well above most of the competition.

Top 10 Reasons to See The Good, the Bad, the Weird:

1. It’s a slick, fast-paced homage to one of the greatest western films of all time.

2. Stuff blows up in it.

3. Kang-ho Song is a joy to watch.

4. Out of all the Asian cowboy movies I’ve seen, this is probably one of the best.

5. It has one of the best chase scenes of recent memory.

6. An old woman is placed inside of a closet.

7. It feels more like how Indiana Jones 4 should have been.

8. It hearkens back to the legendary classic without besmirching the original’s greatness.

9. People fire guns while swinging through the air.

10. It’s got one frenetic pulse that doesn’t let up. Like a good action movie should have.

Originally published by “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 8, 2010.

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One-Armed Man Strikes Back

Spencer Tracy is one of those actors who, no matter what, always manages to remain consistently entertaining, powerful, and strangely understated. Many of his performances were quiet and earnest, yet one might always suspect that there rested a stern bite beneath the surface.

Who couldn't love this face?

Who couldn’t love this face?

His later work in such films as the Scopes Monkey trial courtroom drama Inherit the Wind (1960); the phenomenal Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) which chronicled the trials for the Nazis war crimes following World War II; the racially charged Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) in which his white daughter is engaged to a black man (played by Sidney Poitier); and even a wryly comic role as the straight-laced Capt. Culpepper who decides that he might be entitled to more in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) to name a few are very memorable indeed.

His white hair, craggy face, and gentle, thoughtful timber added much to many films. Not terribly fond of rehearsals, Tracy would read the script once several days before shooting and not look at it again (in order to preserve the freshness). Tracy (much like Frank Sinatra) was also not fond of multiple takes.

This is comfy. I could narrate "How the West was Won" from here right now. Give me the microphone.

This is comfy. I could narrate “How the West was Won” from here right now. Give me the microphone.

Today I wish to highlight what cab be been best categorized as a “minimalist neo-western.” The Spencer Tracy vehicle, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), follows many of the familiar conventions of typical cowboy/western fare, but the added touch of taking place in 1945 gives it a uniquely contemporary flare.  The film is directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape), and also stars Robert Ryan (Battle of the Bulge), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), Ernest Borgnine (Marty), Anne Francis (Forbidden Planet), and Walter Brennan (The Pride of the Yankees).

Nowhere: vicinity of the middle. Population: you. Laws: laws?

Nowhere: vicinity of the middle. Population: you. Laws: laws?

Bad Day at Black Roc is set in a quiet—too quiet—western town in the middle of nowhere. There are only a few residents and the train never stops there…that is until the mild-mannered John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) shows up one day. Macreedy, a one-armed war veteran, is greeted with hostility and suspicion by all. It seems everything the intelligent and likable Macreedy does just bothers the residents of Black Rock.
Quit bein' a wise guy and answer the question. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Quit bein’ a wise guy and answer the question. Why did the chicken cross the road?

Macreedy, a simple gentleman with a streak of hopelessness since the loss of his arm, has come to Black Rock with one simple purpose: to give a medal to the man who’s son saved his life in the war. The catch: the man is a Japanese-American named Komoko. Macreedy learns (despite many attempts to chase him out of town) that tough guy, Reno Smith (Ryan), and his racist thugs murdered Komoko. It’s a taut suspense thriller to see if Macreedy can stay alive long enough to catch the next train. Despite being handicapped and an older guy with one arm against a whole town of cowardly thugs out to get him, Macreedy is filled with a new purpose: to avenge Komoko and bring his murderers to justice, but as the Black Rock folks close in and gradually cut off communication and transportation to the outside world, the situation becomes increasingly dire. The few friends he has made in Black Rock are all too conflicted and afraid to help him so Macreedy truly is alone in the wretched desert town. It all culminates into an edge-of-your-seat final showdown (but definitely not your typical western showdown).
We don't take kindly to strangers.

We don’t take kindly to strangers.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a satisfying film with great performances and a sharp look. Director John Sturges does fine work. The suspense and feelings of isolation really boost the story into something quite special. A rather humorous and violent exchange between Borgnine and Tracy in a bar is particularly enjoyable. Macreedy’s transformation from a man whose handicap has led him to give up on himself into a man full of righteous indignation and a profound sense of purpose that awakens his will to survive is electrifying. Once again Spencer Tracy gives a very fine performance as the exceedingly polite but resolve-filled John J. Macreedy.

Why don't you just tell me where to sit.

Why don’t you just tell me where to sit.

The film deals with hard issues. Anti-Japanese sentiment felt by many Americans during World War II is manifests in a very unapologetic and ugly way. This movie is really about a viscous hate-crime being avenged. It pulls the carpet out from under the audience even more by having the long arm of justice ironically represented by a one-armed man. I strongly recommend you seek out and watch Bad Day at Black Rock. It’s a pleasurable little film with a lot of strong atmosphere, color, and suspense. I love it and I think you will too.

Now to frame Richard Kimball.

Now to frame Richard Kimball.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 30, 2009.