The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

Since the first time I saw Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, I was hooked.  It's easily in my top 10 favorite movies all time (along with a few other Leone movies) and no matter where it's at if I stumble across it on TV, I'm hooked and sitting down for the rest of the movie.  It's one of the best westerns ever made, and according to voters over at IMDB and their scientific voting, one of the best movies ever made.  I'm hard-pressed to disagree.  So a successful movie that's highly regarded? Seems ripe for a remake, right?

In the over 40 years since its release, GBU has been rehashed, redone, spoofed but never straight up remade...thankfully.  Well, the obvious place to expect a remake to come out of is...class, anyone?  That's right, South Korea!  No joke.  I saw the trailer two summers back, and here in 2010 it's finally available on DVD in the U.S., 2008's The Good, the Bad, the Weird.  All that said, a South Korean remake of one of my favorite all-times movies isn't the weirdest thing going here.  What's weirder?  This version is great, and I loved everything about it.  I know, I was surprised as anyone.

It's 1930s Manchuria and petty thief and train robber Yoon Tae-goo (Kang-ho Song) stumbles upon a map that could lead him to a buried treasure hidden for hundreds of years. But as he looks into the origins of the map, Yoon quickly finds out he's bit off more than he can chew.  A hired killer, Park Chang-yi (Byung-hun Lee), and his gang have caught wind of the map's existence and will stop at nothing to get their hands on it. More than that, a mysterious bounty hunter, Park Do-won (Woo-sung Jung), is on the hunt too and the three men's paths seem destined to cross. The promise of a huge payoff is too much for many and soon enough rival gangs are in on the hunt, not to mention the Japanese army's involvement in acquiring the treasure.

This isn't a straight remake obviously because as opposed to the 1860s American Southwest in the Civil War we get 1930s Manchuria.  But overall, the basic premise is the same, three men on the hunt for an epic payoff.  Director Ji-woon Kim has done nearly the impossible here with his 2008 western.  He took a Leone classic, and not only pays homage but also puts his own spin on a classic. At 130 minutes, the scale is immense, and Kim clearly has a large budget.  It's a gorgeous movie, features some great camerawork, a musical score that samples everything from spaghetti western scores to big band to soft jazz to Spanish guitars (listen to a sample HERE) and everything in between. On their own, these things might mean nothing, but together they form the ground level for a great movie.

The three stars don't have the name recognition that Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef have, but their characters stand on their own.  Not unlike Wallach stealing away GBU as bandit Tuco, Song steals the movie as Yoon (the Weird), the insignificant beggar rat of a thief.  It's a very physical part, and Song gives the look of maybe his character isn't all there in the head.  It's hard not to like the character though, and he runs away with every scene he's in.  Lee's Park (the Bad) is the ultimate pretty boy bad guy, always immaculately dressed, his hair just right, as he callously dispatches men all around him.  In the world of cool western bad guys, he's one that won't be quickly forgotten.  Jung's bounty hunter (the Good) gets lost in the shuffle at times, but this aura of an unstoppable gunman is always cool, including one suicidal ride through a gauntlet of Japanese soldiers which he of course survives.  Separately these three are all ridiculously cool characters, and together they're perfect.

Enough of all that snooty movie stuff, let's get to the action, and there is a lot of it.  I'm talking some of the best over the top, ridiculously exaggerated western shoot 'em up I've ever seen.  The opening shootout on a crashed train is just the jumping off point as Kim continues to one-up himself with each passing shootout.  Some are bigger in scale than others, but none disappoint.  There's a gunfight in a scummy motel, a running chase through the claustrophobic, cramped streets of a Manchurian village, and of course, the epic finale.  It's an almost 45 minute extended sequence that has our trio, a rival gang of bandits, and Japanese cavalry and artillery battling it out on a barren desert plain.  I don't even know how to describe it, it's just one of those pitch perfect action sequences that doesn't rely too much on CGI.  Action aficionados will not be disappointed.

Now what do people remember most about the original GBU? For most, it's the three-person shootout in a cemetery in the finale.  GBW stays close to the original while putting its own spin on the proceedings.  The actual ending -- watch through the credits -- didn't blow me away only because the downer ending that could have closed the movie would have jumped into my list for all-time most perfect endings.  But it doesn't end that way, adding an unnecessary but not movie-killing finale.  Would I have kept the ending that comes before the credits? No doubt about it, but as is it's a minor complaint in a movie that I otherwise loved.  Could you tell?

The Good, the Bad, the Weird <---trailer (2008): ****/****

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