Film Review: Let the Bullets Fly

Rival crooks battle for control of a beleaguered town in 1920s China in a fast-paced and surprisingly layered adventure.

The best Chinese film to reach the U.S. in some time, Let the Bullets Fly is a dense but satisfying genre mash-up that is the equal of many big-budget Hollywood productions. With its layered plotting, deadpan comedy and virile action, it's easy to see why the film has become the all-time top-grossing Chinese production. Although likely to remain a niche item here, Let the Bullets Fly deserves a wide audience.

The film opens with a brilliantly choreographed train robbery in the highlands outside Goose Town that leaves the region's new governor dead. At least that's what "Tang" (the ingratiating Ge You) and his mistress (a very funny Carina Lau) tell "Pocky," a ruthless bandit leader (played by director and co-writer Jiang Wen). With no loot on hand, Pocky decides to impersonate the governor in order to bleed Goose Town dry. Tang, who dropped his identity as governor to save his life, tags along as Pocky's counselor.

But Goose Town is already under the thumb of drug smuggler and human trafficker Huang Fox (Chow Yun Fat). While asserting friendship for the new governor, Fox tries to undermine his authority by staging attacks he blames on neighboring bandits. Pocky counters by offering to capture the bandits in return for a bounty of millions in silver. Tang shuttles warily between the two, ready to betray either to gain control of Goose Town for himself.

Jiang spins out this story with an expert hand, staging massive battles and intimate intrigues alike with the same gusto. A dinner scene in which Fox, Pocky and Tang angle for the upper hand finds a perfect balance between humor and suspense, along with a cynicism worthy of Dashiell Hammett. Just as good is a nighttime battle between Fox's men and Pocky's gang, each disguised in the same masks.

The director sets a blazing pace for such a complicated plot, but the acting is so strong and assured that the story remains easy to follow. Jiang himself is a delight as a rough-hewn but street-smart warrior, while Ge You brings a touching ambivalence to his part as a craven counselor. Chow Yun Fat really digs into his role, unleashing an arsenal of grimaces and outbursts each time his ganglord is outwitted.

Filmmaking this lively and accomplished is hard to come by. Jiang references everything from Patton to Sergio Leone, but never loses sight of what his viewers want. Fast and furiously funny, Let the Bullets Fly has astute points to make about sex, politics and economics. All three leads are committed to the sequel Jiang is preparing.