Amidst the vast wilds of 1930s Manchuria, a wealthy Korean businessman hires psychotic hitman Park Chang-Yi (Lee Byung-hun) to steal a treasure map from a Japanese official travelling by train. Elsewhere, freedom fighters ask heroic bounty hunter Park Do-Won (Jung Woo-sung) to retrieve the map for the benefit of the Korean people struggling under the Japanese occupation. Complicating matters, hyperactive, motorcycle-riding bandit Yoon Tae-goo (Song Kang-ho) robs the train first, nabs the map and races off in search of the treasure, with Do-Won in hot pursuit. The pair are eventually forced to join forces as they are chased by rival bandits led by Byeong-choon (Yoon Je-moon), Japanese soldiers and the relentless Chang-Yi, who bears a mysterious grudge against Tae-goo.
As the title suggests, this boisterous Korean western/war/adventure epic is a loose reworking of the classic spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Thus we have three top Korean superstars doing their take on the iconic characters essayed by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach: tight-lipped, cowboy attired Jung Woo-sung (The Restless (2006)) is our sharp-shooting good guy, shark-grinning dandy Lee Byung-hun (Joint Security Area (2000)) is the ice-cool villain, and bug-eyed Song Kang-ho (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), The Host (2006)) is the hopped-up, daredevil “weird”. It’s not the first Eastern-Western, but you’re unlikely to find a better example of the hybrid form, nor indeed a more pumped-up thrill-ride in 2008.
While a few plot elements and a handful of scenes directly reference the earlier Italian film, this movie riffs on Leone without lapsing into lazy pastiche. Writer-director Kim Ji-woon, maker of the remarkable A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), continues to grow as a visual stylist and his film grammar interweaves audacious tracking shots akin to Martin Scorsese and Spielbergian composite camera moves, alongside the expected nods to the spaghetti western. In fact the layered visuals, mid-eighties Jackie Chan-style slapstick stunt-work, and moments of chaotic beauty are more Asian in feel than Italian.
Ji-woon is in his element during the spectacular train robbery, introducing Tae-goo with a bravura steadicam sequence that soaks up the colourful chaos onboard: glamorous call girls, prowling soldiers, braying animals, barking vendors and grungy passengers. Everyone scatters amidst the assault, bullets fly and spear-chucking horsemen impale shrieking citizens, with our title trio rising out of this madcap melee less as characters than elemental forces: steadfast Do-Won, slithery Chang-yi and frantic Tae-goo. Later on, Ji-woon plunges us into the bustling Ghost Market via a labyrinthine tracking shot past bandits and traders, camels and elephants, segueing into a hilarious shootout where Tae-goo entrusts the map to his senile granny.
If there is a downside, it’s that Ji-woon pitches the film more as a crowd-pleasing action-adventure movie than the three-act opera we associate with Leone. Consequently, characterisation plays mostly second fiddle to the relentless pace. Chang-yi’s self-amused villainy (“People must know they’ll die someday, but they live as if they never will”) is intriguing, but the detached demeanour of Do-Won leaves him something of a fatalist (“Life is about chasing and being chased”) and while he briefly addresses the trauma wrought by the Japanese occupation (“Why buy land when your country is stolen?”), he remains sadly the least interesting character.
Man of the match award goes to Song Kang-ho as the zany outlaw who proves closer to Rod Steiger’s big-hearted bandito in Duck, You Sucker a.k.a. A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) than Eli Wallach’s wily Tuco. He proves the most human of the three, underlined in a bizarre detour wherein he visits a lush Manchurian brothel only to rescue some captive children from a hulking, Mohawk baddie straight out of The Road Warrior (1981). However, the flashback that reveals his connection to Chang-yi - and weaves in a nod to Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) - is something of a head-scratcher. Also a few subplots - which include acclaimed actress Uhm Ji-won as the revolutionary leader imploring Do-Won’s conscience - fizzle out unsatisfactorily, which may not be the case with the Korean cut that runs seventeen minutes longer.
Ji-woon orchestrates a rousing penultimate battle where the three antagonists, two lots of bandits and virtually the entire Japanese army converge on the treasure site. Park Do-Won impressively twirls his rifle like John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939) and does for one hundred Japanese troopers what Clint Eastwood did for Nazis in Where Eagles Dare (1969), but the climactic three-way standoff proves curiously unsatisfying. Far more inspired is the revelation of what this much sought after treasure really is, with our three bozos too dumb to realise what they’ve got. The energetic music by Chan Young-gyu is sort an Ennio Morricone you can dance to, with pounding Latin rhythms, fuzz guitar, whistling, and orchestral flourishes present alongside excerpts from Glenn Miller and Santa Esmeralda’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, the song made famous in Kill Bill (2003).