It’s bandit versus bandit in Let the Bullets Fly, a Chinese comedy of multiple mistaken identities and brutal slapstick violence that rang up record box-office numbers in Hong Kong and mainland China in 2010.
Low on nuance and high on body count, the movie is primarily of interest to fans of Asian action spectacles and followers of the charismatic Chow Yun-fat ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), here cast as both a dandyish villain and his idiotic double.
Set in warlord era of 1919, the film features a trio of middle-aged Chinese stars as gangsters of various moral shades in a Chinese society that appears to be a wide-open kleptocracy. Not surprisingly, director Jiang Wen (grim Japanese-invasion drama Devils on the Doorstep) has played coy about how much the film is intended as a political commentary.
Jiang plays Pocky Zhang, a stone-faced gangster, who we meet as he and his gang of six bandits rob a horse-drawn train. He’s disappointed to discover that the seemingly wealthy passenger on board is not a local governor going to take his new post in the backwater of Goose Town. Instead, he’s an opportunistic con man named Ma Dingbang (Ge You, who could be the Chinese answer to Don Knotts), who’s planning on impersonating the dead governor. (Possibly, though, Ma is actually the real governor, who is pretending to be a con man to save his neck.)
Zhang decides to pretend to be the governor himself, with his gang members assuming the parts of government officers and the weaselly Ma standing in as his counselor. The plan is to use the political post to steal from the local plutocrats.
Arriving in town, Zhang and his entourage quickly run afoul of dandyish local gangster, Huang Silong (Chow Yun-Fat), an opium dealer and human trafficker. For years, Huang has colluded with various governors to oppress the local populace. Adding even more complexity to the story, the paranoid Huang has a dull-eyed body double (also played by Chow). At first the power struggle is more psychological than physical, until Huang’s adopted son is tricked into killing himself by one of Huang’s henchmen. Then it becomes personal, as Zhang promises to “destroy Huang’s soul.”
Along with the familiar East-meets-West elements derived from Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, Jiang offers cleverly choreographed action scenes and fun-house mirror complications. On the downside, as the film reaches its two-hour mark, only the most dedicated will care exactly who’s doing what to whom and why.
Partly, this is Jiang’s point about how interchangeable corrupt politicians are. In one scene, the three crooks offer a collective display of pageantry to impress the gullible populace. In another sequence, Zhang foments a local revolution, leading gangs of armed youth (The Red Guard?) to storm Huang’s fortress. Not surprisingly, they seem more interested in pilfering his expensive furniture than righting any historical wrongs.
Let the Bullets Fly
- Directed by Jiang Wen
- Written by Zhu Sujin, Shu Ping, Jiang Wen, Guo Junli, Wei Xiaon and Li Bukong
- Starring Jiang Wen, Ge You and Chow Yun-Fat
- Classification: 14A
- 2.5 stars