Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

I was told, even before I saw a single frame of director Jiang Wen’s ‘Let the Bullets Fly’, that most of the subtlety and phrasing which has made this movie a huge hit in China will be lost on me, or anybody who isn’t Chinese or at least China-centric. Sure, I’ll buy that. I mean I just can’t pop in my DVD of ‘Black Dynamite’ and expect just any ol’ person to completely get what’s going on in that movie. Still… I watched it, and ‘Let the Bullets Fly’ was entertaining but the geo political underpinnings, and the relationship between the main characters and the parallels between the current politico dynamic occurring in the present day Pacific Rim… oh yeah, if that stuff was in there, it completely went over my head.

Jiang, in addition to directing, assumes the main role of notorious bandit Pocky Zhang. On this sunny day on a Chinese hillside in the late 1920’s, Zhang and his crew of loyal bandits ambush the horse drawn rail train of the one Ma Bangde (Ge You) who is being ferried to his next gig of governor of some local municipality. Unfortunately there was no money on this train, a train that had like fifteen or so people on it who are all dead now, with the exception of this future governor and his new wife Mrs. Ma (Carina Lau), but while begging for his life Ma Bangde convinces Zhang to assume to role of governor, with him acting as his counselor, and watch the money flow in.

So our bandits, looking all legitimate and stuff, make their way to Goose Town. Problem being that Goose Town is lorded over by the complete evil, unreasonably greedy, totally corrupt Master Huang (Chow Yun Fat) and he prefers his politicians to stay in the background and take orders. Having spent some quality time Zhang and his crew, we know this is not going to happen, and now the battle of wits is on.

Zhang’s simple plan is to use his new position to amass a huge amount of wealth, preferably using his mastery of guns and stuff, while leaving the oppressed people of Goose Town be, and retaining his dignity. Bangde, a veteran of political shenanigans, informs him that this is completely unreasonable. Either you get a little wealth, mostly through diplomacy and the continued oppression of the people while kowtowing to the big boss, or you gain a lot of wealth, you use your gun, lose all sense of dignity, and continue down the road of disrespect as a bandit. Zhang isn’t listening to this and believes he can do it his way.

Zhang is a very clever, very intelligent person with a deep loyalty to his men, and a good heart. We mention this because Huang is almost as intelligent and clever, but he has no loyalty to anyone and his heart is a shriveled up prune. In a war, the odds are generally tilted towards the favor of the smart man with no morals. The one distinct advantage Zhang does have is that Huang believes he needs the pretend governor’s help to bring down the bandit Pocky Zhang who is robbing him of a good bit of his prized opium. Zhang is more than happy to take Huang’s money to help stop himself. And so it goes, Zhang will win one round, Huang will the next round, neither man gaining an upper hand, and the losses on both sides will be tragic and plentiful. More so for Zhang because, as mentioned, Huang could care less. Sleight of hand and explosions will ensue.

‘Let the Bullets Fly’ is an odd movie to take on for a number of reasons. First there’s the title, a title that leads one to believe that we are about to watch one of those insane, action filled HK Woo-esque gun ballets. This ain’t that movie. ‘Let the Bullets Fly’ is simply a saying that Zhang uses to occasionally ignite a particular situation. The movie does have some action sequences of course, but it is largely dialog driven. Also, how does one categorize this film? Is it a comedy? I mean it has some comedic scenes it, but then almost every major character in this movie dies horribly… and that’s not funny. There’s even a scene of rape in this movie, accompanied by a touch of nudity which I almost never see in a Mainland Chinese film. That wasn’t funny either by the way. Is this a political thriller? A heist flick? A tragedy? All of the above? Then there’s the style in the way this dialog is presented and the roundabout way the narrative is wrapped around this plethora of dialog. This is probably where it would’ve been real helpful to be Chinese. It’s clear that there’s a lot humor and a boatload of references in this dialog that is being delivered in machinegun fashion by Chow Yun Fat, Jiang Wen and Feng Xiogang. I imagine I caught a good bit of the humor, certainly not all… but the references slipped through my five hole. In fact, if I hadn’t read a detailed synopsis and review of this movie before watching it, I wouldn’t have even known that it was there. Thus while attempting to ‘review’ this movie, I’m clearly at a disadvantage since I didn’t come close to comprehending everything the director was attempting to get across to his audience. But upon further thought, there are plenty of American movies in which I missed most of what the director was trying to get across, so I guess this is really nothing new for me.

What isn’t lost in translation were the solid performances. Jiang Wen the director knows Jiang Wen the actor pretty darned well and coaxed a very cool, very confidant acting performance out of himself. Chow Yun Fat, who has made himself a glorious career playing solemn, tragic heroes, this time gives us one the most slippery, slimy, duplicitous bad guys we’ve seen in recent cinema history, not to mention his highly amusing secondary role as the towns idiot. The performances all around were very good, and they needed to be in order to deliver the plethora of dialog that was written in the style that the director need it delivered.

‘Let the Bullets Fly’ was an entertaining film, but was a certainly different kind of film experience for this audience member.

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