Story: In the year 1920 China is ruled by warlords. The thief Pocky Zhang (Jiang Wen) and his gang attack the governor
Ma Bangde (Ge You) who is carrying nothing valuable on his travels, though. Ma takes the identity of his own adviser and tells Zhang about a con
that the governor had planned. Thus, Zhang lets Ma and wife live and travels to the city in which Ma is expected as the new governor. Pocky Zhang
claims to be the new man in charge and right from the start preaches equality and justice. Also, he wants to enforce it with arms.
The local gangster boss Huang (Chow Yun-fat) doesn't like that at all and so a deadly game between him and Pocky Zhang unfolds. The two pretend
to be no enemies but in truth they are secretly scheming how to get rid of the rival. This claims some casualties but while Huang believes
to have his enemy right where he wants him Pocky Zhang still has some aces up his sleeve which he is about to make use of soon...
Review: There aren't many directors who can incorporate political themes which aren't in line with the thinking of Chinese authorities
into their movies and yet manage to pass the board of censors. Jiang Wen manages to pull off this feat thanks to a subtly implemented
commentary on corruption, bureaucracy and revolution. In fact the implementation of it is so subtle that you might even miss it completely.
However, that is also because "Let the Bullets Fly" is to a high degree filled with story and dialogues. This also leads us to the movie's two
biggest problems. The running time is simply too long with its 132 minutes and the film seems overloaden in general. Despite constant flashes
of brilliancy the audience might have some issues with a few gags that can't really hit the mark. In the end Jiang's new movie is a black comedy
and you just have to get along with his kind of humor in order to have a nice time with it.
How biting the humor really is, is also shown in the way some of the characters kick the bucket in the most gruesome way and the movie also doesn't refrain from depicting a good amount of violence presented with a wink that can make the viewer laugh out or create alienation. The humor is very culture-specific, too, and strangely it couldn't really appeal to me. Adding to the problem is that a lot of the jokes are hidden in the dialogues and consist of playing with words which naturally will completely elude you in the subtitles. That is frustrating and also is a good transition to the next big weakness of "Let the Bullets Fly": the dialogues. Actually, they are written very well but the constant clashes of Zhang and Huang, during which they pretend to be the best of friends while their talk has a meta level to it on which their hatred for one another comes to full effect, gets outright tiring.
The game of how Huang and Zhang try to always be one step ahead of the other at some point becomes tedious despite many nice ideas. This is mainly the case because the dialogues and the behavior of the characters seem too artificial as if everything were just part of a chamber play. This may work in another genre but not in a Chinese western like "Let the Bullets Fly". Furthermore, the film features several supporting characters and side plots that actually wouldn't have been necessary and make the western too colorful in the end. Yes, that's possible as well. At least there is always one certain thread visible in the shape of Zhang. He is the Robin Hood among thieves, yet can be extremely cold-blooded, too. We might be sympathetic to him, but sometimes his actions are also putting us off or irritate us. Actor Jiang Wen delivers a charismatic portrayal and manages to give his character some nice facets.
His rival is played by Chow Yun-fat ("Confucius", "A Better Tomorrow") who obviously has a lot of fun embodying the villain. His fondness for luxury and his peculiar way of a code of honor that he sticks to may not bestow noteable character traits on him but Chow succeeds in adding small peculiarities to his character so that it simply becomes fun to watch him.
The pacing and action in the movie is not the result of some shootouts, there are only few of them to be found, but of the several double-crossings, betrayal and smart schemes to lure the enemy into a trap. Most of the time this is quite entertaining, but as already stated it can also become tiring when a certain narcissism concerning the brilliancy of one's own plans becomes apparent during the dialogues.
In the end this jet-black comedy surely is a good movie that will find its audience, especially since it is also tailored for a wider audience, the humor proves to be problematic for western viewers on the other hand. Jiang Wen, who since his "Devils on the Doorstep" at the latest belongs to the biggest directors of Chinese cinema, can't deliver a masterpiece here, not even a very good film, for this there are simply too many flaws but the reason for his success still remains obvious. He is an exceptionl filmmaker with a lot of good ideas as is even shown by the ace Zhang pulls out of his sleeve during the finale. Unfortunately, his western "Let the Bullets Fly" turns out to be too colorful. As if too many ingredients had been put into a hot pot. Everything in itself might taste well, but put together it tastes somewhat odd.