By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
The opening shot of “Let the Bullets Fly” has a man placing his head on the railroad tracks: not a bad indicator of the crazy, destructive action that will prevail for the remaining 132 minutes. This movie, the biggest-grossing Chinese production ever, is a lunatic enterprise from the get-go.
The 1920s-era plot follows a bandit, “Pockmark” Zhang, as he pretends to be the new governor of a remote burg called Goose Town. The character is played by the engaging Jiang Wen, who also directed the movie.
Goose Town is currently lorded over by Master Huang, a preening and corrupt dictator. He’s played by the awesome Chow Yun-Fat, star of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” who shows off his manic-comedian side here.
Zhang brings his bandits into town under the guise of governing, and Huang orders his flunkies into battle, too. But on the surface, the two men make nice; some of the film’s funniest scenes simply watch the two of them elaborately flattering each other, scenes that simmer with mutual hostility and greasy insincerity.
There’s a lot of violence, too, some of it of the super-black variety — a few characters are killed along the way who you didn’t quite expect to lose (in fact, you’d come to like them), so be ready for a shock or two.
One scene in particular resolves itself in a way that you may never forget, even if you want to, as a man accused of eating two bowls of soup while paying for only one bowl discovers a novel way to prove his innocence.
Along with the two great lead actors, the movie offers up the mischievous presence of Feng Xiaogang as the new governor’s craven assistant and Carina Lau as a very practical widow. At least we think she’s a widow. It gets very complicated as we progress through the twists and turns of the story.
In fact the whole thing is dark enough and clever enough (and exposes a general system of ingrained corruption to such an extent) that it recalls something out of the writing of Dashiell Hammett. The movie never flags in exposing a sardonic viewpoint and a generally low estimation of conniving humans.
Some have suggested that Jiang Wen snuck in some criticism of contemporary Chinese society within his outlandish genre story. Maybe — but the film’s hilarity surely explains its box-office triumph, I suspect.
“Let the Bullets Fly” (3 stars)
An uproarious black comedy, set in 1920s China, about a bandit (director Jiang Wen) pretending to be the new governor of a remote area, who butts heads with the corrupt local dictator (an antic performance by Chow Yun-Fat). The movie was the biggest Chinese-made box-office success ever, and it’s easy to see why. In Mandarin, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for violence.