Let the Bullets Fly was the biggest hit of all time in China when released domestically in 2011. Written and directed by actor Wen Jiang, the film takes place in a tumultuous time in China’s history in the early part of last century. A bandit known as Pockmark Zhang (Wen Jiang) descends upon the small province of Goose Town having kidnapped the new mayor and deciding to take the position for himself. Looking to make a fortune, Zhang soon finds himself up against the ruthless gentry Huang (Chow Yun-Fat) who will stop at nothing to remain in power.
With a title like that and the fact that it stars one of the coolest movie stars who ever lived in Chow Yun-Fat, you could be forgiven for expecting a kinetic Asian action flick that lives up to the best of the genre, except Let the Bullets Fly is kind of a spectacular mess.
It could be that something was lost in translation here, as this tends to happen with the Asian cinema that gets more of a low-key release than things like the latest Jackie Chan movie, the very quick dialogue delivery and subsequent struggle to keep up with the English subtitles would support this. However regardless of your nationality or language capabilities you can’t deny that tonally this film is all over the place. It starts like a fun adventure with a silly Stephen Chow like sense of humour but then gets quite dark and violent but still has silly characters and cartoon violence going on before chucking in a fairly brutal rape scene. Plus once the bandit gang get to the town then their motives become a little confusing, at first you understand they are seeking their fortune but then they decide to hang around and save the town from the brutal Huang, except you are never really given any idea as to how this decision was made or the sudden motivation for the heroic actions.
All of this would be fine if there were satisfactory bullets flying around with carefree abandon but unfortunately this isn’t the case either. After a well-constructed and conceived train heist sequence at the beginning the film slows right down. Thankfully there is no shaky-cam around the action scenes and you do get the obligatory two-fisted gunplay but it never feels like it’s earned or essential to what is going on, it just kind of starts and stops rarely serving a plot point or purpose. The film is also far too long for what it is, a simple hour and forty minutes would have gone a long way to making this more enjoyable but at two hours and a bit it becomes a chore to get through.
The one saving grace in this film is the performances from the leads Wen Jiang and Chow Yun-Fat. Wen Jiang is a fairly nondescript character actor type who seems pretty far away from conventional leading man material so initially when he hatches his scheme, its more believable that he would set out to impersonate a government official. Once settled his performance has a world-weary air as he deals with keeping the members of his gang in line, it’s a performance that belongs in a better movie. Chow Yun-Fat on the other hand seems to be having much more fun as both the bad guy and his simple double that he uses as a decoy. It’s been a while since we have seen the man in something where he was allowed to cut loose and have fun so it’s good to see the man back in full fire charismatic mode.
Let the Bullets Fly is a film which has a series of great moments but doesn’t hang together as it should and is ultimately too flawed in the execution to be anything apart from a disappointment.