Review: ‘Let the Bullets Fly’
China-Hong Kong Co-Production Offers A Wild Ride
Thursday, March 8, 2012
If you're a fan of Chow Yun-Fat, "Let the Bullets Fly" (opening March 9 at the Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters, Friday's 7:25pm show is co-sponsored by the San Diego Asian Film Foundation) might take a little getting used to as the Hong Kong action superstar does a comic turn.
For those of us who fell in love with Chow Yun Fat in John Woo's heroic bloodshed action films of the Hong Kong New Wave, we probably have an iconic image of him floating in mid-air or sliding down a bannister with two guns blazing fixed in our heads. He is forever the elegant and even chivalric action hero.
But that's just one aspect of Chow and "Let the Bullets Fly" is proof of that. When I interviewed him over a decade ago he confessed a love for Rowan Atkinson's "Mr. Bean" and with "Let the Bullets Fly" American audiences get a chance to see his more comedic side. In Hong Kong, Chow has done many comic films but here in the US we mainly get to see his serious action films. But Chow is adept at comedy and in his latest outing he not only goes for laughs but he delivers a rather goofy character turn in which he's far from the hero. Although conventional heroes are in very short supply in "Let the Bullets Fly."
"Let the Bullets" is a China-Hong Kong co-production that mixes talent and styles from both. It's also currently China's highest grossing film. At the helm is China's Jiang Wen who orchestrates a political satire wrapped up in the trappings of a Chinese spaghetti western. Set in China in the 1920s, the film begins with a train robbery. Bandit Pocky Zhang (played by Jiang) derails a train carrying veteran con artists Ma Bangde (Ge You) and his wife (Carina Lau). The couple had planned on conning the residents of Goose Town into thinking that Ma was their new governor. The idea strikes Zhang's fancy so takes it as his own and makes Ma an unwilling accomplice in presenting Zhang as the governor of Goose Town. But as soon as Governor Zhang enters the town he finds himself at odds with local gangster Huang (Chow who also plays Huang’s idiot double). Things grow complicated, everyone seems to be scamming everyone else as a cycle of ever escalating retaliation is set into motion. But along the way, an odd thing happens to Zhang. He seems to develop a social conscience and a desire to see that justice as well as the wealth gets evenly distributed among the populace.
The story and the action madly fluctuates from the serious to the silly but with Jiang and Chow at the center it all flows with engaging energy and verve. Jiang previously made a big splash with "Devils on the Doorstep," which he also directed and starred in. That film displayed a similar sense of careening tones but ended with a shocking blow that allowed for no happiness. "Let the Bullets Fly" at least maintains its humor through the end. Dark humor, but humor. And Jiang delivers a message that seems to both toe the political line and challenge it with sly irony.
The title is quite accurate in describing the action. Bullets do fly but not in the stylish, heroic bloodshed manner of John Woo. Sometimes the action is brutal and sometimes slapstick. The film is much like a rollercoaster that climbs slowly, then drops suddenly only to careen around a curve and then take you through a loop. You feel a bit jerked around but end up enjoying the ride.
The real pleasure is seeing Chow and Jiang square off. Chow mugs for the camera with the same finesse as he handles guns in Woo's films. He even goes for broke on occasion with the imbecilic double. It's a sly yet over-the-top performance and it's fun to see Chow exercise some different acting muscles. Jiang's performance seems calm by comparison. He's a bit like the eye of a hurricane, still while chaos swirls around him. Together they are perfect antagonists constantly toying with each other and maneuvering for advantage.
"Let the Bullets Fly" (in Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles) is an oddly appealing and intriguing film. It definitely puts the goofy comedy in the forefront but it also has a lot on its mind.
NOTE: The 7:25pm screening on Friday is co-sponsored by the San Diego Asian Film Foundation so if you want to show support for both the film and SDAFF, make an effort to fill the house for that showing.