Man, I feel like I just went for a long run. One of the common complaints about “movies these days,” particularly American films, is that they go too fast – too many cuts, too much plot, too much camera movement, it’s all too much! These people have not seen The Turin Horse, but they also don’t allow for cases in which such pacing can be graceful in ways both absurd (Crank) and thematic (The Dark Knight). Their exhausting nature can be purposeful. Let the Bullets Fly, for as silly and audacious as it often is, has no such benefit.
In a thrilling opening scene that amounts to the highlight of the film, “Pocky” Zhang Mazi (played by writer/director/star Jiang Wen) and his gang of bandits ambush a train which so happens to be carrying Tang, who’s on his way to be the governor of a small town. Only he’s not really the governor; he’s posing as him. Zhang thinks that sounds like a pretty good plan, so he kidnaps Tang and his wife, makes Tang his counselor, and take the governorship for himself. Once there, he finds a town lorded over by mobster Master Huang (Chow Yun Fat), and before long, a game of wits ensues between two master criminals.
That all sounds like a good deal of fun, and I’m not kidding when I say it really starts out that way, much in the vein of Jee-woon Kim’s spectacular The Good, the Bad, the Weird with a dash of Kung-Fu Hustle. The gunplay is fast and loose, the plans well-laid and exciting to watch play out, and the banter lively enough to please the late Howard Hawks. Jiang does a masterful job of keeping that spark in the dialogue alive as the film goes on, but his handle on his camerawork is significantly less Hawksian. Rather than watch his characters engage with one another, he speeds up his editing to keep pace with the ever-quickening dialogue. So constantly are we thrown from one face to the next, a sense of whiplash quickly sets in without so much as a pan to account for it. He turns what seems designed to thrill into something distinctly uncomfortable, and that’s even before a guy guts himself to prove there isn’t as much food in his stomach as he was accused of stealing.
Yeah, so, that happens. And don’t get me wrong, I admire a film’s lunacy as much as the next guy, but again, I’m not sure Jiang’s directorial hand is as strong as his writing one. Things very quickly spiral out of control in a darkly comedic manner, and then we’re suddenly forced a scene or two later to deal with the mortality of it all. Human life doesn’t seem to be of much concern until it’s required for easy pathos. And I’d be willing to cut a film called Let the Bullets Fly some slack in that arena if, frankly, some more bullets started flying. There are some loose skirmishes in which Jiang’s camera makes a greater deal of the physical activity than is actually occurring, but the action is mostly loaded towards the end (which, it’s worth noting, is fairly righteous), long after we’ve abandoned any hope of cohesion.