China’s biggest domestic hit thus far, Jiang Wen’s “Let the Bullets Fly” owes major debts to Sergio Leone, CGI technology and the prodigious talents of his co-star, Chow Yun-Fat, all of which make for a rollicking, violent, Western-cum-comedy that serves many masters, but adds up to an entertaining hot pot of wry political commentary and general mischief. Curiosity factor will certainly aid an inevitable U.S. release, though genre fans in particular will find much to revel in, with Jiang being a helmer of sharp commercial instincts and a sage satirical bent.
Set in the Warlord Era of the 1920s, pic opens with a horse-drawn steam train — a salute to “Once Upon a Time in the West” — which is carrying the new governor of nearby Goose Town (Feng Xiaogang), along with his wife (Carina Lau) and unctuous major domo, Tang (Ge You). Suddenly, the train is blown out from under them, killing the governor. Notorious bandit “Pocky” Zhang (Jiang) is to blame. Since no one in Goose Town knows the new governor’s face, Pocky decides to assume his identity. Tang and Mrs. Ex-Governor immediately fall in line with the masquerade.
Meanwhile, back at the Tang Dynasty-style hacienda, the paranoid Huang (Chow), a trafficker in humans and opium, is trying to get his idiot doppelganger (also Chow) to behave like a suitable target for any would-be assassins. Huang’s control over Goose Town is further threatened by the arrival of a new governor, especially when Pocky decides to assume a Robin Hood role, dividing the proceeds from the train hijacking with the less fortunate. Jiang deftly pulls off a riff on the classic “Fistful of Dollars”/”Yojimbo” gambit of having opposing characters play off each other while always disguising their underlying motives.
While a generous portion of “Let the Bullets Fly” is dedicated to computerized chaos, explosions and mayhem, the subtle is always in competition with the ostentatious: In one lengthy scene involving Pocky, Huang and Tang at a table, discussing their diverse worldviews and hinting at their ulterior motives, d.p. Zhao Fei’s camera virtually floats around them, rotating, making mute commentary and suggesting the camerawork in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flowers of Shanghai.” It’s captivating.
In addition to being a versatile and stylish director, Jiang (“Devils on the Doorstep,” “In the Heat of the Sun”) is also a charismatic actor; Pocky is a sly, devious but righteous hero whose outlaw sensibility provides the moral spine to “Let the Bullets Fly.” His leadership of his band of brigands is enthralling and funny. Chow, on the other hand, makes Huang purely venal, but also complex — he’s too arrogant to hide the machinations of his always-underhanded criminal thinking, and his transparent Machiavellian pseudo-intrigue is often hilarious.
Pocky promises to bring law to Goose Town, but once his adoptive son, Lao Liu (Zhang Mo), kills himself during a dispute with Huang’s sidekick Hu Wan (Aloys Chen), Pocky and his men swear to avenge Lao’s death. When Huang finally meets Pocky, he offers Pocky money to kill the bandit who’s been creating trouble for his business — in other words, Pocky himself. A Kurosawan game of cat-and-mouse is under way.
The production is an orgy of CGI, with stuff and people flying everywhere, quite often in slo-mo. But Jiang balances the sensational with the thoughtful, aided by a first-rate cast that includes his actress wife, Zhou Yun, as the sweet-natured Flora, who tempers the heat of Pocky and his pirates.