At over two hours, Let the Bullets Fly is a long haul, but writer-director-star-god Jiang Wen (Devils on the Doorstep, The Sun Also Rises) delivers the goods. His "Dim Sum Western" is a smart, fast and fun ride thatís got layers to enjoy and/or discuss. The film does possess flaws; international audiences may be befuddled by the density of Jiang's story and script, and the sheer amount of crossing, double-crossing and two-faced double-speak happening onscreen sometimes approaches exhausting. No matter, Jiang Wen plays his audience like a dime-store harmonica, and he does it so well that he deserves a salute, a thumbs-up or maybe just a high-five. Choose your form of approval.
The title may lead some to expect an action picture, but Let the Bullets Fly is more of a black comedy, with veiled satire mixed with bursts of action and a few over-the-top moments. Jiang Wen stars as renowned bandit Zhang Muzhi, who hijacks a horse-drawn train carrying politician Ma Bangde (Ge You) and his wife (Carina Lau). Ma is actually a conman rather than a politician; his gig involves buying gubernatorial posts and then taxing the locals. Ma pretends that heís his own councilor to avoid death (his real councilor, played by Feng Xiaogang, perishes in the train robbery) from Zhang's men, but finds himself hijacked by Zhang anyway. Deciding that gentlemanly thievery (i.e., political power) would be a nice change of pace, Zhang plans to take up the governor post of Maís next mark, the downtrodden outpost Goose Town.
But Zhang has a pretty big obstacle. Goose Town's resident godfather Huang (Chow Yun-Fat) chooses to ignore Zhang's authority, even though Zhang presides with a pistol at his side. Huang looks to push Zhang out of town without revealing his obviously bad intentions, but Zhang is game, choosing to take this battle of wits back to Huang. While Ma looks on, both Zhang and Huang use an armory-full of cunning, trickery and thinly-veiled wordplay to gain even the slightest advantage over the other. Much of the comedy in Let the Bullets Fly comes from this thin layer of deception, where people pretend to be people that they arenít while acting like theyíre not enemies with someone they most certainly are. And both sides usually know that the other person knows that they know what the other person is trying to do. Get the picture?
Probably not, so hereís a diagram: Zhang Muzhi goes to Goose Town and pretends to be governor Ma Bangde, but he's really a bandit called Pocky Zhang because of pock marks on his face that he doesnít actually possess (Note: relevant!). Meanwhile, gangster Huang pretends to be a good guy while plotting wickedly and acting condescending to his foes. The real Ma Bangde pretends to be his dead councilor Tang in order to stay alive, but he may be working a few other angles. Despite all this trickery, nobody is really fooled by anyone else, but they all pretend that they are, just so they can play the other person and make things even more confusing. An added bonus: Huang has a double, also played by Chow Yun-Fat, who he uses occasionally as a decoy. Whoís really who, here? There's an answer to that question, and perhaps it has greater meaning. Or maybe it doesn't. Go ahead and pick your side on this issue.
The layered character dynamic in Let the Bullets Fly is very fun but also very talky; many of the reversals and reveals happen in dialogue, making the film potentially unfriendly to non-Mandarin speakers. Also, much of the humor is dependent on wordplay and Chinese culture, and action occurs verbally just as much - if not more - than it does kinetically. There's standard action with guns and chases, but it's mostly for show rather than John Woo-esque excitement. Jiang presents his heroes with mucho ironic coolness (e.g., guys posing coolly or holding guns akimbo), and the action is presented with a fast, sharp rhythm that feels more like dance than gunplay. It's entertaining but hardly bullet ballet. If someone sees Chow Yun-Fat, hears the word "bullets" in the title, and gets visions of post-modern John Woo homages, then disappointment could be in the offing. If that describes you, then this is your warning.
Look past that warning and youíll be rewarded, however, because Let the Bullets Fly is a terrific motion picture that should be appreciated by anyone who likes smart cinema. It's not a perfect film. Ge You's character doesn't have a strong arc, and serves more as an enabler to both Chow Yun-Fat and Jiang Wen's characters. Also, the film does occasionally lag, its interest in its own cleverness and large cast of characters sometimes becoming tiring. The characters are well-defined even outside the big three of Zhang, Tang and Huang, but the shifting focus and breathless verbal jousting sometimes goes on too long. Thereís great stuff here, but even great stuff can exasperate if it seems never-ending. However, Jiang Wen is a confident director, and it shows in each choice and movement made. Thanks to Jiang's assured touch and the sharp editing, going along for the ride is quite easy.
The most fascinating aspect of Let the Bullets Fly is its politics Ė or perhaps just its sly way of presenting them. This is a commercial film, but Jiang Wen scatters multiple ideas throughout, touching upon corruption, suppression, bureaucracy, politics and revolution, among other choice touchy subjects. These are themes here that should be uncomfortable to China and yet SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) passed the film, indicating just how hidden or embedded Jiang Wenís ideas are (or maybe how inattentive SARFT really is). Thereís a veiled critique of China present Ė or maybe there isnít, but hey, itís easy to imagine that Jiang Wen is trying to stick it to China while raking in the kudos and RMB. In many ways, Let the Bullets Fly feels like a smart and sardonic joke on the China audience. It entertains and thrills while offering meaning - but what does it all really mean? Maybe only enough to produce an amused glint in Jiang Wenís eye.
So letís forget what it all means and concentrate on the stuff that we dig: actors, action, sharp dialogue and a good old time at the movies. Let the Bullets Fly is all of that and a bag of chips, with a rich screenplay accompanied by strong camerawork, rousing music (some leftover from Joe Hisaishi's The Sun Also Rises score), vivid sound design and fast, unerring editing. The star triumvirate is one to behold; Jiang Wen convinces with strong and effortless cool, Ge You is weak and conniving without being pathetic or annoying, and Chow Yun-Fat owns the screen as the duplicitous yet oddly honorable gangster and his idiotic double. In smaller roles, Aloys Chen, Carina Lau and Jiang's wife Zhou Yun also make an impression. Let the Bullets Fly strongly walks a line between commerce and art, providing action, comedy and whip smart entertainment while also giving cinema readers something to chew upon. A few years back, it was Crazy Racer, and last year it was Cow. This year, Let the Bullets Fly should be your Chinese commercial cinema of choice.