Fast paced, beautifully choreographed, and downright silly, Jiang Wen's Let the Bullets Fly is what you'd get if combining the action and comedy of John Woo and Stephen Chow. Wen, who also co-stars and co-wrote the script, reportedly agonized over the writing to the point where he went through 30 drafts until he finally got it right. While the multiple characters and multiple double-crossings can get a touch convoluted and hard to follow, Wen's film is frequently hilarious and pays homage to classic Hollywood movies better than many Hollywood productions do.
An old school Western at its core, Let the Bullets Fly has the dusty old look of a John Ford film, with Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo also a clear influence. Don't be confused by seeing so many stylistically different directors referenced, as the film mashes up and switches genres at the drop of a hat, making for a wildly off balance experience that is an absolute blast.
Set in 1920s China, the story begins with an expertly staged train robbery by a bandit leader who claims to be the infamous "Pocky" Zhang(Jiang Wen). The only people left alive are Tang(Feng Xiaogang), a jittery con man who has bought the governorship of a place called Goose Town after the guy who was supposed to take over died en route. Along with him is the old governor's treacherous wife, now Tang's mistress. Zhang, who sees a chance to earn some real cash in Goose Town, spares Tang's life but assumes his identity as the governor, bringing the weaselly trickster along as his couselor.
Their arrival in Goose Town is met with drums and much celebration, except there's one who isn't so happy to see them make it safely. The dusty old town, which despite the Asian architecture looks like it's due for a tumbleweed crossing, is already under the iron grip of local gangster named Master Huang(Chow Yun-Fat). Huang shows his arrogance and ultimate displeasure by only sending his favorite hat to the introduction party, and from there let's just say neither side will be having each other over for tea.
Well, that's not completely true. Huang, who has killed off all of Goose Town's other governors, immediately sees Zhang as a threat and sets out to undermine his authority immediately. Zhang wants to string Huang up by his neck, but not before taking every last bit of his money. Good luck following their often mystifying schemes, as the story seems to have been developed intentionally to leave you scratching your head. Between Huang's goons and Zhang's seven-man squad, all of whom where the same masks at different stages, it's impossible to keep track of what's going on at times. Throw in some body doubles, a fake "Pocky" Zhang, and Tang's consistently inconsistent allegiances, and Let the Bullets Fly is often the height of lunacy.Perhaps as a by product of Wen's struggles perfecting the script, he seems a little confused how to wind down such a roller coaster in a sensible way. At 130 minutes, it's too long by about twenty minutes, and with so many swirling subplots a couple of the less important ones could have been cut without damaging the momentum one bit.
And yet it's undeniably fun, and the characters all memorable. Wen, who is as charismatic an actor as he is one of China's elite directors,is the perfect foil to Chow Yun-Fat's scene chewing villainy. The pace is brisk and never slows down, nor do the many homages to other of Wen's many influences. When you can somehow emulate George C. Scott's Patton and still have it make sense you're doing something right. Already the highest grossing production in Chinese history, Wen has an undeniable hit on his hands, one that would fare well if given a chance here in America.