Little visual gags fly as fast as the bullets in this 2010 Chinese action comedy, starring co-writer and director Jiang Wen as Pocky Zhang, a bandit leader who poses as governor of a southern outpost. One of the first things we see is a bandit leaning down to listen for an approaching train on railroad tracks—but first he ostentatiously sticks his finger in his ear to clear it out.
Mistaken identity is at the core of much of the movie’s comedy. Let the Bullets Fly opens with Zhang and his band hijacking that train, which is carrying the actual governor (Ge You) to his post in Goose Town. During his interrogation of the governor (captured in a shot-reverse-shot sequence that’s edited at light speed), Zhang decides that pretending to be the governor might be more lucrative than simply robbing him. But upon arriving in Goose Town (with the real governor in tow, disguised as Zhang’s counselor), Zhang finds that things are actually run by the local crime boss, Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat). This leads to a series of strategic chess moves between the two men, culminating in a comic set piece where Zhang’s crew and Huang’s henchmen square off while wearing the same bandit masks with red circles on them, unable to tell who is who. It’s a face-off as farce.
With its manic comic sensibility, Let the Bullets Fly recalls the work of Hong Kong’s Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle, CJ7), whose own films seem inspired by Looney Tunes cartoons (the opening train sequence here could easily be a Wile E. Coyote short). Physics takes a back seat to fun, so that much of the film seems to be occurring in fast motion. As director, Jiang looks for every opportunity to be showy; at one point an alarm clock is thrown in the air and shot to pieces, causing a metal circle to sail over the camera like a collar.
As an actor, Jiang seems to understand that his face has a comic appeal—those big ears—that allows him to underplay the gags by keeping a straight face. He’s a delight. The legendary Chow (The Killer, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) gets a double role as the villainous Master Huang and Huang’s dim-witted body double. He’s quite a bit broader than Jiang, but equally amusing.
The disparate tones Jiang juggles can make for some uncomfortable moments. There are sudden bits of graphic violence, for instance, and a rape scene that isn’t give nearly the serious consideration it deserves. (Like much of the movie, it’s a setup for a later gag.) But as a political satire, Let the Bullets Fly is pointed and precise. “I want to make money standing tall,” Zhang says at one point, trying to explain why he’s left forest robbery behind. “Impossible,” the real governor replies, knowing bureaucratic corruption all too well. The best joke in Let the Bullets Fly might be that a bandit is the movie’s moral center.