Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly (2010) is now one of the highest-grossing Chinese films of all time, and it’s not difficult to see why. The title of the film seem to suggests a return to the classic heroic bloodshed movies of John Woo, an assumption supported by the presence of Woo’s iconic leading man Chow Yun-fat. However, those expecting a contemporary take on The Killer (1989) or Hard Boiled (1992) may be disappointed – or perhaps, pleasantly surprised.
Wen has proven to be a sophisticated and provocative director, most notably with the difficult yet engrossing Devils on the Doorstep (2000). Let the Bullets Fly might seem a departure, an unashamedly commercial venture, a raucous action comedy set in frontier China, but the real joy to be found in Wen’s film is in its biting and pointed subtext.
The comical and complex double-crossings, the occasional breathless action set piece, are almost distractions to the real themes which hold specific interest for Wen, that of state corruption, political revolution and the idiocy of bureaucracy. This is no mean feat considering the tight constrictions of the Chinese censor, as all scripts must pass the state administration of radio and TV before filming can commence. Perhaps the slick and stylish packaging was enough to distract the censor from the content, as what an impressive package this is.
Yun-fat, as cunning crime lord Huang, is at his imperious best, whilst Wen himself owns the screen as bandit Zhang, each actor clearly relishing their roles as morally bankrupt individuals working the angles for purely selfish ends. The sheer level of double-crossing, double identities and double entendre can be confusing at times, but to the credit of Wen, it is always entertaining and at times very amusing. The acclaimed director knows exactly how to get the most out of his locations, with an almost Leone-esque eye for sprawling vistas and sweaty close-ups.
With its expansive script and complex themes, Wen still manages to deliver an entertaining, engaging and engrossing film and arguably one of the best commercial movies to come out of China for many years. Let the Bullets Fly must surely mark Wen out as one of the best commercial directors working in China at this point in time.