Undeniably, this is one of South Korea’s best examples of imagination and creativity. Just by looking at the title, one can already tell that this is an ode to director Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, but it also takes many other visual notes from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, takes inspiration in adventure from Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, immerses itself in the cultural intricacies of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, and punctuates its moments with the bombastic nature of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Director Jee-woon Kim, known mostly for horror films, I Saw the Devil and A Tale of Two Sisters, creates his most sharp-witted, in-your-face, summer-type blockbuster yet. What separates this film from its American counterparts is its ability to keep a consistent sense of humor.
Most of the situations in this film are flat-out ridiculous and director Kim makes this outstandingly clear. Its main inspiration, 1966’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was, for the most part, a straight-faced Western with most of its humor centered on ‘The Ugly’ character, Tuco, played by the great Eli Wallach. That being said, this loose reconfiguration to Leone’s classic also focuses around its Tuco equivalent. Here, ‘The Weird’ is also a petty thief who uses his strange personality and quirks to get him out of any situation. He is so adept in his awkwardness that it seems like beautiful choreography; naturally, created by the director and the writer. Kang-ho Song delivers a fantastic performance as the weird Yoon Tae-goo, exemplifying enough charm and naïveté to make the nearly 2 hours and 10 minute film feel like an hour and a half. Yoon Tae-goo’s quest to find a treasure hidden near the border of 1930’s Soviet Union and Japanese occupied Manchuria is the stuff of legends, and he is not the only figure after this buried secret. The film’s Clint Eastwood equivalent is Park Do-wan played by a kind-faced Woo-sung Jung. He does not bare any resemblance to his infamous sneer, but he still pulls off the quiet tough guy demeanor quite well. Of course, the film’s heroes are only as good as its villain: Park Chang-yi played an unpredictable, almost Joker-like Byung-hun Lee. His twitches and stares are a combination of the original’s Lee Van Cleef with an extra dose of Heath Ledger. His character is so utterly despicable and merciless that the audience can only admire his overwhelming ability to get away with anything.
This triangle of characters go up against everything from trains, to old town gunbattles (some phenomenal art direction and cinematography represented in these action sequences), from crossing paths with a strange assortment of characters, to a massive cannon/machine gun battle with the Japanese army, so it's no wonder this is the most expensive film South Korea has produced to date. It really shows, but all the money in the world is not what this film is meant to boast. Its twists and turns and journeys are what make it worthwhile. This review really does not illustrate how wild a ride this film is. You just have to see it.