It’s hard to knock any movie that opens with an eye-popping train robbery, followed by a balls-out siege, and then a super-cool heist. Writer-director Kim Jee-woon shapes The, Good, The Bad, The Weird as a sprawling adventure set in ’30s Manchuria, following the efforts of Japanese, Russians, Chinese, and Koreans—the latter including the three bandits of the title—to get their hands on a much-coveted map that may lead to a fortune. Guns blaze, transportation gets hijacked, and though tentative deals are struck in dark rooms, those deals go out the window once trouble starts. The story’s many advances and reversals can be hard to follow at times, but this isn’t really a movie where plot is paramount. Everything boils down to the action, and what that action means.
Kim previously made the deeply creepy horror flick A Tale Of Two Sisters, and here, he shows a facility for a different genre. The Good, The Bad, The Weird nods knowingly to Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Budd Boetticher, Raoul Walsh, and Anthony Mann, and even rides in the same pack with its influences in a stunning climactic 20-minute horse-vs.-motorcycle chase through the desert. Though the movie has an ingratiating air, only Western buffs need enter.
But The Good, The Bad, The Weird’s real strength is in the way it establishes what it’s going to be about right from the start. In that opening train robbery, the various factions and their competing interests converge all at once, each following their own well-thought-out plans. Kim’s inventive action sequences develop like short films, with their own plots and props. If a character comes across a diving helmet in the middle of a gunfight, he puts it on; if another tries to chop off a finger, he needs to be certain his blade is sharp. Each action determines the next action, and each counter-action affects the whole. The movie is like a compact explication of Pacific Rim politics, in oater form.