Sunday, May 2, 2010
When Action Movies Were Fun: The Good, The Bad, The Weird
We are a few days from the start of the summer movie season, in which, week after week, Hollywood will release potential blockbusters with budgets that well into nine figures. Even taking into account the number of underwhelming movies that are dumped in theaters during the first four months of the year, summer, with very few exceptions, has turned into a barren wasteland of manufactured entertainment. These are movies made in corporate boardrooms, conjured up through formulas involving demographics, quadrants and other corporate buzz words that, sadly, due to the predictability of movie audiences, has proven to be effective in luring ticketbuyers. Take a look at any of these movies and there is a certain joylessness to the proceedings, where directors bring a television ad aesthetic to the filmmaking and movie stars look like they are thinking about little more than the check clearing in their bank account.
This will not be about me ranting against the idea of Hollywood making action spectacles, but the reality is that sometimes they really do not seem to care about the quality of the product they put out. How much fun and imagination can filmmakers infuse their movies with when every creative decision is trying to second guess moviegoers' reactions as summed up by test scores and spreadsheets? Whatever happened to the days when George Miller can go out in the Australian desert and shoot something as batshit insane as "The Road Warrior"? Or how about comparing the Steven Spielberg who made "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with such enthusiasm for the possibilities of cinema to the Spielberg who directed "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" as if held at gunpoint by George Lucas? Sometimes, you just want to go to the movies and leave with a smile on your face, such as I did when I saw "The Good, the Bad, the Weird".
As with most foreign films these days, even one that is sheer delirious fun like this is, "Weird" is being given a rather half-baked release. On its opening weekend in New York City, it played on one of the smaller screens at the IFC Center. The theatrical release seems like an obligation, so that most of the money can be made from its VOD release. While this is an effective way for smaller films to be seen, "Weird" is made to be seen on the big screen. Directed by Kim Ji-Woon and taking some inspiration for its premise and characters from Sergio Leone's "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly", this film has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality to its filmmaking.
Having written a lengthy piece about how Quentin Tarantino sampled Leone in "Inglourious Basterds", you would think that this film would be subject to the same criticism from me. The problem I had with Tarantino is that he seemed to apply Leone's directing style without his eye for compositions, as well as employing Ennio Morricone's music in places it never fit well for a movie that does not really comment on Leone, Westerns or the macho posturing present in genre films. I never believed it did much beyond Tarantino proclaiming that he loved watching Leone movies. Kim Ji-Woon takes from "Ugly" directly and then spins the tale into something else to the point where only a couple of scenes recall those spaghetti western classics. "Weird" moves at such a relentless pace, the opposite of Leone's drawn out symphonies of silence. Though Kim has as a strong eye for widescreen compositions as Leone, he does not really borrow a whole lot from him visually.
The reality is that "The Good, The Bad, The Weird" is actually a '30's serial, more in common with the mixture of adventure, brutality and cynicism of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" than the subsequent Indiana Jones sequels that watered down the character by making him heroic. Set in 1930's Manchuria, the movie begins with a train robbery where "The Bad" Park Chang-yi (played by Byung-hun Lee) and "The Weird", a bandit named Yoon Tae-goo (played by Song Kang-Ho, fast becoming one of my favorite actors), both attempt to steal the same map, which supposedly leads to a buried treasure. Sound familiar? At the same time, "The Good" named Park Do-won (played by Woo-sung Jung) shows up to collect a bounty on "The Bad".
From its opening moments, you can tell Kim is not shy about showing his love for filmmaking. The first shot follows a CGI hawk flying in the sky until it swoops up a carcass from a train track right before a train passes. Then, another great shot comes soon after (the entire intro I describe is available here) which follows "The Weird" from behind through several train cars that almost feels like Kim casually tosses away, as opposed to calling attention to it by lingering on it too long. The sequence cuts between our three main characters, establishing the space and action, while also deftly inserting humorous bits courtesy of "The Weird", who lucks into having the map fall into his hands. This leads to both "The Good" and "The Bad" trying to hunt him down.
The plot of the rest of the movie is simple. It was actually pretty refreshing for once to see a modern-day action/adventure that did not feel the need to stop every fifteen minutes to deliver chunks of clumsy exposition. Any time, something needs to be explained, it is done swiftly and efficiently. Basically, "The Weird" narrowly escapes from the other two several times. Allegiances are formed, then broken. A few secrets about each of the characters are revealed. And, to no one's surprise, the movie ends with the three of them having a standoff, which is probably the most direct lift from "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly", except Kim wisely steers the end in a completely different direction especially the final reveal of the treasure. The plot is interesting enough to support the bravura filmmaking on display, but I will not be delusional enough to think this is a deep film.
Yet, the director understands how to build excitement in sequences, as well as set up and deliver the comedic moments. In the middle of the film, there is a great shootout in a shantytown with "The Good" and "The Weird" taking on "The Bad" and all of his henchmen. Once again, you marvel at some of the elaborate crane shots that lay out the cinematic space, as well as the precise cutting. With the filmmaking I see these days, sometimes I have to note when the more traditional methods work so much better. There are few moments of shakey-cam in the film, but, thankfully, the director keeps those shots to a minimum.
The final chase set piece in the desert with every character plus the Japanese army chasing "The Weird" is also a classic action sequence, reminding me of the beloved multi-vehicle chase sequences that George Miller concocted for the climaxes of both "The Road Warrior" and "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome". Characters are shooting at one another from jeeps, horses and motorcycles, at times, even switching vehicles mid-chase. For the most part, you see actual stuntmen, as opposed to the CGI stunt recreations that mar modern action films. You even feel a bit disturbed knowing that some of those horses crashing to the ground are probably real. The music choices throughout the film are inspired. Of course, there are some nods to Morricone's spaghetti western scores, but the majority of the film is scored with Spanish-influenced music complete with castanets. In an even more demented choice, the score to the final chase scene uses the Spanish-tinged remake of the song "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" made famous by The Animals and fits more cohesively here than it did in "Kill Bill".
There is a complete lack of restraint to the director's vision that may be too much at times, but the movie is alive in every frame. Kim certainly wears his influences on his sleeve, but he presents them filtered through his sensibilities. "Weird" becomes more of an ode to the joys of popcorn movies can give us rather than just paying tribute to his favorite films and directors as if this were some cinematheque tribute. The movie, with cinematography by Mo-gae Lee & Seung-Chul Oh, has the look of a live action comic book with vibrant colors popping in every frame. The colors are so saturated that even the details of the rusted metal in the previously mentioned shantytown sequence is quite beautiful.
As far as the characters go, much like I would never claim this movie to be deep, I am also fully aware that the characters are archetypes, each sketched to varying success. "The Good" is clearly the weak link of the trio, by nature of being the straight man within all of this madness. Not that Woo-sung Jung did a bad job, but he does suffer a bit from being the least colorful person. "The Bad", however, is quite an oddball villain. I actually did not realize I had seen Park Chang-yi before in "Joint Security Area" due to this character's distinctive look. It is not a surprise that this character does not hesitate to kill anyone. (He casually shoots a woman in the opening train robbery sequence just because she was screaming too much.) What makes the character interesting enough is showing how easily his pride gets wounded. Having a reputation for chopping off fingers, he is reminded constantly that others believe "The Good" to be the quicker draw. Often, it seems like his ego is driving the character through this film rather than finding the treasure.
This leaves us to "The Weird", which is yet again, another standout performance from Song Kang-Ho. Like Tuco from "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly", Yoon Tae-goo demonstrates that he can be a competent bandit and gunfighter when the time calls for it. But, somehow, his bizarre personality and his propensity for macho posturing unfit for his stature results in his character creating disasters everywhere he goes. Yet, he still retains just enough ingenuity to get himself out of jams. Song Kang-Ho finds just the right balance to both sides of his character, so that you can believe when he plays the fool, as much as you can understand how this man has managed to survive this long. If South Korean films were seen as widely here in the States, the range of Song's performances would be greater appreciated. Perhaps, because he looks rather ordinary, Song disappears into roles such as this one or his other performances in "The Host", "Memories of Murder", "Thirst", "Joint Security Area" and "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance".
I want to reiterate that I am fully aware that "The Good, The Bad, The Weird" is neither a poignant or important film. In fact, if you called it a dumb or silly film, I would probably would not disagree with you. However, I do not believe it was ever aiming to be high art. If the movie made some half-assed attempts to be self-important, its spell would not work. It is a shame that, due to its subtitles, it has been restricted to an art house ghetto in its U.S. release. It transported me to when I was a kid, remembering when summer movies back in the early '80's were not as cynical in their intentions as they are now. This will never quite be in the same league as "Raiders" or "The Road Warrior", as those movies reached a little more for depth, but it sure stands out from what is made these days.
Filmmakers back in the '80's were not making what few serious cinephiles would proclaim was great art, as much as they were making movies that make you recall them with a smile on your face and say, "Can you believe they did that sequence?" It was a time when directors were not so blatantly business-oriented in their filmmaking decisions and demonstrated a certain amount of craft when bringing their visions to the screen. Perhaps, I have gotten older and see the past through rose-tinted glasses. Or maybe I dread the thought of movies like "Iron Man 2" or "The A-Team" attracting big crowds this summer while "The Good, The Bad, The Weird" will disappear virtually unnoticed.
Yet, I will remember sitting in a half-filled theater with less than 100 seats and every single person in attendance having a blast, excited by every inventive action sequence and laughing hard at every absurd joke. Sometimes, we forget during these times of corporatized filmmaking that it is okay to find some pure joy in the images projected on the screen.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird was seen at the IFC Center and will be available on IFC on Demand through June.