Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Trifecta (The Good, the Bad, the Weird)

It seems to me that one of two polar-opposite possibilities must be true. Either I have been sufficiently stressed out lately, and therefore desperately in need of escapist entertainment, that everything which recently has given me even a momentary respite has been subjectively bestowed with a radiant aura of pure and undiluted awesome. Or, I have been in a borderline maniacally good mood lately, and therefore more exquisitely receptive to escapist entertainment than usual, and so on with the aura of awesome and whatnot. On the third hand, I suppose there’s also the theory that I’ve just had a string of good luck lately and have been consuming nothing but top-shelf quality goods. For whatever reason, that last one strikes me as the least likely.

Nevertheless! I find myself once again bereft of snark, denied any gripe-worty targets. To recap: I started re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower a few weeks ago, and found it even better than I remembered (possibly because it starts strong and then goes downhill, but let’s save that for further reflection tomorrow). Then, while pausing between volumes of that series, I watched Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad & the Ugly as a thematic companion piece, and was blown away by it. Then, apropos of nothing except that it was out there, I went to see The Cabin in the Woods in the theater and pretty much went insane over that as well. (I seem to have broken off the urge to blog about it constantly for now, although I still have more to say, but for better or worse The Avengers comes out this coming weekend, so that will give me a new Whedonian object of obsession soon enough. There may have to be a Whedon Week this year after all.)

After Cabin, I turned back to my Netflix queue and watch The Good, the Bad, the Weird, a self-evident companion’s companion to the classic 60’s spaghetti western, this time filtered through Korean cinema of the late 00’s. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record (or at the very least like a relentless shill for the movie industry in general), I have to say that The Good, the Bad, the Weird is AMAZING. It’s not exactly a remake of The Good, the Bad & the Ugly but it’s unmistakably based on its predecessor, a combination of loving homage and riff in a slightly different direction. It’s still the story of three bandit types, a bounty hunter, a hired killer, and an opportunist (I suspect the latter was changed from “ugly” to “weird” because he’s significantly more sympathetic in the Korean take), and how all three of them come to be on the trail of buried treasure. And it’s still full of both archetypal western and mytho-historical tropes, although I admit I’m entirely ignorant of 1930’s Manchuria so I’m not the best judge of where the history ends and mythology begins. But beyond those parallels, The Good, the Bad, the Weird goes its own way playing out (and ultimately resolving) the premise.

I’ve copped to this before, and I’ll cop to it again: I’m a sucker for filmmaking that is modern and stylish. Leone’s spaghetti westerns have an undeniable grandeur about them but there’s a lot to enjoy in a movie from 2008 that can make full use of all the technological developments of the past few decades. After a brief prologue in which the Bad accepts his latest job, the movie starts off with a bang as the Bad is trying to hijack a train, which just happens to be in the process of being robbed by the Weird, who has the Good hot on his heels trying to collect the price on his head. The entire train sequence is absurdly over the top, with the action of gunplay and movement through the cars of the train perfectly complimented by the camerawork – the angle and clarity of every shot, the speed of the editing, etc. As is my wont, I started watching the film on the commute one day and had to stop at the end of one leg and start again the next. I found myself watching the full train sequence twice because I didn’t want to skip past it, and on second viewing I was pretty well convinced that the movie had peaked early and nothing else could possibly top that. Imagine then the exhilaration of not one but two more action sequences, a shootout in the Ghost Market in the middle and a chase scene involving horses, motorcycles, Army jeeps and numerous artillery explosions near the end, which come insanely close to outdoing the train sequence themselves.

Another thing I’m a sucker for is the outrĂ© and exotic. I’ve seen plenty of cop movies set in New York or L.A., and no doubt will see many more, so I enjoy a different backdrop now and then, and East Asian deserts are pretty far afield. I kept idly wondering if The Good, the Bad, the Weird was really supposed to be a historical western or if it was set in some post-apocalyptic future, because everything was a strange blend of the alien and the familiar-but-out-of-context. The Good dresses like an American cowboy, the Bad dresses like Eurotrash, and the Weird dresses in a crazy hodgepodge which at one point includes an antique diving helmet used as improvised armor in the Ghost Market shootout, and yeah, pretty much right there the movie had me won over completely. The soldiers look like modern soldiers, but the roving bandits look like thrift-store hipsters, and at least one of the Bad’s posse looks like a long-haired barbarian draped in furs and wielding a war hammer. None of which is a complaint, of course, as it all makes the movie that much more visually arresting. If half of that represents what Manchuria was like in the 30’s, I may have been born at the wrong time.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also commend The Good, the Bad, the Weird for its score, which is another element that is indebted in no small part to its cinematic forerunner (specifically Ennio Morricone) but also stands on its own. The music blends both eastern and western influences and produces something which has already taken up residence in my brain as the quintessential soundtrack to Asian Cowboy stories if ever there was one.

Years back, I watched The Host, which had come to my attention as Korean cinema’s answer to the monster movie, and I was glad to have watched it but felt like it didn’t quite resonate with me fully or match my expectations completely. The Good, the Bad, the Weird basically got on my queue as another swing, this time with an answer to the western, and this time the experiment was an unqualified success, exactly what I had been looking for and a fair amount of stuff that went above and beyond that. When I finish my current cowboy-mania, I can easily foresee tracking down more of Kim Ji-woon’s filmography.

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