At some point during the runtime of Let the Bullets Fly, you might wonder why the protagonist and antagonist don’t just kill each other then and there. Both know the other is out for their head; both are playing at a game that’s long and slow, playing off the social and political constraints of their respective “offices.” But both men are willing to wait it out, willing to let the titular bullets fly, perhaps, more than anything else, because a move made in haste could cost them their own life.
Likewise, the screenplay by a half-dozen authors and Jiang Wen’s direction demonstrates patience and control. There are lengthy talking scenes where the characters take their time to get to the point. Attentive listeners will catch the clues along the way and wait with anticipation for the bang. To me, this is the tense excitement of Inglourious Basterds other people raved about, an excitement I never felt watching the film.
Pocket Zhang (Jiang Wen) is an infamous leader of bandits who decides to turn around his luck from a heist with no dividends by taking on the persona of mayor of a small town after capturing Counselor Tang (Feng Xiaogang). But when he arrives to the town, he finds it’s run by the corrupt Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat). AS the two vie for power, both sides spill blood and a dark game of vengeance begins.
The film balances the tragedy of lives lost against the film’s sense of dark humor. In one funeral scenes Zhang and his bandits speak each in turn at the funeral of their fallen comrade. The film takes time to soak in the loss of life from this game, but also shows how, as Zhang puts it, a dead body can be more use than a living one. Some of the funniest moments in the film involve how both men use bodies throughout the film to paint themselves as the victim.
The true delight of the film is any scene where Jiang Wen and Chow Yun-Fat are in the same room. Watching the two play off each other is hilarious. Chow Yun-Fat holds little back while Jiang Wen plays the straight man. What makes it work is the smart dialogue which uses turns of words and phrases as blinds for the characters to both hid behind and expose in order to try to corner their opponent. The verbal fighting is more tense, exciting and exhilarating than any of the action.
And that’s a great feat given how strong the action is. It doesn’t have a lot of visual flair, but the film makes up for it by creating sequences that give the audience a clear picture of the plans both sides have and how they are going about doing them. The elaborate action plans are smart conceptually and easy to watch play out as they begin to unravel.
Let the Bullets Fly is a blast. It’s a smart film that never feels like it’s trying to show off or win you over. Like the two men scheming to overthrown the other, it’s meticulously planned and effortlessly executed.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing