You won’t see many Chinese movies as irreverent, mischievous or iconoclastic as Let the Bullets Fly. The nation is better known for works of gravitas and dignity: celebrating its rich history or exploring serious aspects of the human condition. Bullets is more Hong Kong than Beijing, with Stephen Chow its obvious spiritual kin. The distinction doesn’t necessary make it a great movie, though it certainly helps it to stand out from the crowd. Hit the jump for the full review.
It starts with a bold opportunity that devolves into a bloody farce. During the war-torn 1920s, a cunning bandit (Jiang Wen, who also serves as writer and director) ambushes a train carrying the new governor of Goose Town to his post. The governor’s assistant dies in the attack and the governor passes himself off as the man in order to avoid being killed. The bandit hits upon the notion of taking the governor’s place, a cushy spot that lets him collect money through graft rather than shooting people in the face. Unfortunately, Goose Town has a criminal element of its own, led by Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat) who has no intention of letting an interloper horn in on his action. The proverbial zany mayhem ensues.
Wen permits his sense of mischief to run amuck, though he retains just enough seriousness to prevent the proceedings from falling into complete silliness. The various combatants are all smart and capable, which doesn’t prevent their byzantine schemes from spinning wildly out of control time and again. It forms an agreeable framework for a surprisingly western-style cocktail of gunfights and explosions. Grounded in firm character motivation, the set pieces become more than just random noise, and while Wen lacks the sheer inventiveness of Chow or Jackie Chan, he clearly puts a great deal of thought into every blazing gun and thunderous boom.
The cast does a great deal to establish the proper tone. The film contains so many twinkling eyes it’s a wonder the DP didn’t go blind, and their often violent showdowns never suffer for a lack of wit or improper delivery. The actors downplay their emotions most of the time, adopting a certain broadness but letting soft words contrast with the loud noises their actions instigate. Fat has the best of it, with the sort of meaty role the actor could never find in the west. Wen struggles a bit more; self-indulgence creeps in too often for comfort, and at times the actor becomes too wrapped up in his status as auteur to let the story breathe beneath him. But his screen presence is undeniable, and he and Fat make a terrific pair of look-alike rivals.
That story falls to the level of an agreeable mess more than it should: pleasant and engaging, but often complicated for its own sake. It earns its spurs in its brazen mischief. Let the Bullets Fly posits officials as unspeakably corrupt, men as basically self-serving and deceitful, and intelligence applied in the pursuit of individual goals rather than the good of the whole. In order words, pretty much the exact opposite of what you’d expect from a Chinese production. Notable films like Hero and Red Cliff extoll figures who make sacrifices for the greater good. Let the Bullets Fly gleefully turns that on its ear, forming a sharp and often funny counterpoint to the established Pravta of recent mainland Chinese films.
That lends its puckishness a certain distinction, but also a prominent voice that its home nation has lacked before now. Let the Bullets Fly broke a number of box office records in China and currently sits just behind Avatar on the all-time list for that country. That suggests a message that its audience dearly wished to hear. Its messy-yet-entertaining package holds a lot of crowd-pleasing moments, and fans of Kurosawa-style East/West mash-ups should find plenty to smile about here. No one will mistake it for a masterpiece, but for now, it’s enough to simply be a little different, and to have some infectious fun with its differences. Wen has evolved from actor to auteur in the last few years; flaws aside, his work here gives us reason to look forward to whatever he may have in mind next.
The Blu-ray is fairly bare-bones, with only the trailers, a making-of featurette and an interview with the writers as well as the now-standard DVD copy. The sound and picture quality are gorgeous, however, and do full justice to Wen’s creative eye.