This might upset a few people. I'm going to be completely honest. I’ve never been a big fan of Chow Yun Fat. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hard Boiled, The Killer and A Better Tomorrow, but my admiration of those films has more to do with John Woo than anything else. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is another favourite of mine, but it wasn’t the Chow that tasted good - Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh were the main attractions that year. Everything I’ve seen him in since Crouching Tiger - Shanghai excluded - has been a little too ordinary, and the less said about Bulletproof Monk the better.
Chow Yun Fat stars in Jiang Wen's Let the Bullets Fly, an ultra-loose spin on the The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Jiang stars as "The Good", a charismatic bandit in need of a fresh challenge, Chow as "The Bad", a crime lord who’s more than a match for the new guy in town, and Ge You is "The Ugly", a gutless opportunist with a loose sense of loyalty. Let the Bullets Fly is a fast-talking, double-crossing comedy that puts emphasis on character and cunning, so it really helps if you have an all-star cast to back you up. How about Carina Lau, Aloys Chen and Zhou Yun? It’s definitely a start.
When a travelling crook and his loyal followers hijack a train, they seize the opportunity to take over a small town. But claiming the town's governorship for themselves won’t be an easy task, not when a powerful mobster is on their trail. A powerful mobster with no intention of relinquishing control. The artwork would suggest (along with the presence of Chow) that the two men are about to engage in all-out gun-toting warfare, leaving a trail of devastation, dead bodies and doves in their wake. This however, couldn’t be further from the truth, and to call Jiang Wen’s ultra-sharp comedy an action movie is doing the film a certain injustice.
Don’t get me wrong, I love action movies as much as the next man. This just isn’t it. Jiang Wen is no John Woo, and in all honesty, he doesn’t claim to be. Let the Bullets Fly takes flight because of smart dialogue, broad humour and fun characters, not the need to indulge in slow motion gun ballet. It’s blessed with a street-smart script, brought to life by some of the liveliest performances of the year, an abundance of charm, and a shed load of winning humour. It also has Chow Yun Fat.
I’m kidding. As much as it pains me to say it, Chow Yun Fat is as good as he’s ever been as the dastardly crime lord Haung, and it’s clear from his performance that he hasn’t had this much fun in ages. Much like Neeson in Taken, Chow has cut himself free of the shackles that saddle his performance. It’s a fun role to take on, without the burden of morals and ethics associated with more serious roles, so he should definitely play fun characters more often. Ge You’s Tang can be a little excessive at times, but even his comedy sidekick shtick wins you over in the end. The supporting players are also given room to breathe, adding further weight to an already impressive ensemble.
As good as Fat is, however, and he has dual roles to sink his teeth into, his performance pales in comparison to Jiang Wen’s lively rogue. Even if some of the humour is inaccessible to western audiences (a background in Chinese culture is helpful but not necessary), and the relentless plotting does get a little confusing at times, Jiang Wen’s Zhang hits home no matter where you’re from. He’s a captivating presence, both in front of the camera and behind it, and with Let the Bullets Fly he has proved himself a master filmmaker.
At just over two hours long, there are times when it might test your patience, especially as we head towards the densely plotted, giddy conclusion. But there are so many memorable moments waiting to reel you back in. Take your pick from the trigger-happy humour, engaging lead turns and blistering shootouts. Let the Bullets Fly doesn’t overcompensate with action spectacle, but when they do come, the obligatory shootouts and chase sequences are handled with flair. I just thought it would be nice to mention the other stuff first.
With great box office, high anticipation and critical accolades aplenty, Let The Bullets Fly could have been a huge disappointment, but it wasn't. Jiang Wen’s comedy western will be remembered for its cunning story, charismatic lead turns and sharp humour. It may also lay to rest a certain bulletproof monk. AW