There are so many impressive historical epics coming out of China these days that I expect a majority of the moviegoers over there could be considered connoisseurs of the genre. So when a movie breaks the box office record and becomes the highest-grossing domestic film in Chinese history, it’s probably something not to overlook. “Let the Bullets Fly” is a wonderful blend of comedy, action and intrigue that manages to thoroughly entertain without the extraordinary budget of “Red Cliff” or extravagant art direction of “Curse of the Golden Flower.” More of a Western than anything else, it somehow manages to build ribald humor, gun slinging and a somewhat obvious revolutionary political message into a crowd-pleasing narrative that keeps you on your toes.
Wen Jiang, who also directed the film, stars as the famous outlaw “Pocky” Zhang, who decides to go for the big time by hijacking a train, impersonating the governor of a district and sharing the spoils with the townspeople. When he arrives, however, standing in his way is the local mobster Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat), who’s been the real authority for years. A battle of wits and bullets ensues, as the bandit-turned-politician pulls out all the stops to humiliate his rival and win the support of the populace. Complete with kidnappings, robberies, body doubles and some inspired explosives, “Let the Bullets Fly” has hardly a moment of slack.
The message of the film is more than a little heavy-handed, though. Master Huang is one of those capitalist mobsters that Mao so blatantly used as targets during the early days of his takeover. The film is set in the 1920s, a somewhat anarchical interregnum period in Chinese history after the fall of the emperor but before the Communists consolidated power in 1949. Hence all of the bandits and warlords running around in a district that has had more than 10 governors in under a decade. It’s the perfect backdrop on which to stir up an impromptu revolution and stage an ideologically uncomplicated blockbuster. Thankfully, the message is less oppressive so much as it is delightfully kitschy, and if anything it just adds more laughter to the film (at least from a Western perspective).
The one problem is Chow Yun-Fat’s tendency to chew the scenery, in a way that turns at least a handful of scenes from comic tension to over-the-top screeching. He even plays his own double, which turns out to be less Peter Sellers, more late-period Eddie Murphy. Thankfully the rest of the cast puts in quite the collection of hilarious performances, and the theatrics alone are enough to keep you entertained. It has top level art direction on par with the best of its genre, including such props as a hybrid locomotive-stagecoach (complete with an enormous central soup pot) and stylish bandit masks with colored dots that serve as a sort of outlaw uniform. The plot twists and turns through complicated trickery and manipulation and wears its absurdity on its sleeve. It’s the kind of grandiose historical charmer that hasn’t been produced in the US in quite some time, and perhaps we could learn a thing or two.