Let the Bullets Fly (US - BD RA)
Gabe takes a look at Jiang Wen's Sergio Leone meets Stephen Chow mega-hit...
1920s China is a lawless land. Corrupt government officials buy and sell their positions, while marauding gangs of bandits roam the countryside. One of the most feared is the Mah-jongg Gang, led by the infamous and hyper-intelligent Pocky Zhang (Jiang Wen). Zhang and his gang execute a routine train robbery, but find the train doesn't contain any silver, just a petty con artist named Tang (Ge You). Tang is on his way to ‘Goose Town’, where he's bought himself a position as governor, which he plans to use to bilk as much as he can from the citizens as he can before moving on to the next town. Desperate to survive, Tang convinces Zhang that if he will spare him, Zhang can assume the position of Governor instead… and with Tang as his counselor, he can make more money in a month than a he could in a year's worth of train robberies. Zhang, intrigued and looking for a break from the road, accepts. They arrive at Goose Town, but find that the entire town is already firmly under the iron rule of the wealthy Master Huang (Chow Yun-Fat), whose charming exterior conceals a ruthless, conniving crime lord. Huang and Zhang immediately sense the threat the other poses, and begin an escalating series of hyper-violent (and often hilarious) mind-games, while the devious Tang tries to play both sides.
I’m going to start this review on a bit of a tangent. It has been a long time since Chow Yun-Fat fans have had much reason to celebrate. Since he turned a semi-successful Hollywood entity he’s appeared in one genuinely great film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Otherwise, his unique charms have been wasted on disappointing ( Curse of the Golden Flower), mediocre ( The Replacement Killers) and downright terrible films ( Bulletproof Monk). Often his effortless talents mark him as a shining beacon of light in even the worst of his output ( Dragonball Evolution, seriously, he’s great in that hunk o’ junk), but I think I can speak for most fans when I say a good performance in a good film is preferable to a good performance in a bad film. It seems that it’s time for the superstar Hong Kong actors and directors of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s period to start making good movies again. In 2008 John Woo returned to China and made up for nearly a decade of Hollywood mediocrity with his two-part epic Red Cliff. Choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping returned to the director’s chair for the first time in since 1996 for the flawed, but entertaining True Legend. Then in 2010, Tsui Hark returned to form with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, one of the most genuinely entertaining comedic genre mash-ups since Kim Ji-woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird.
Let the Bullets Fly is not as ‘forgive the last decade’ good as Red Cliff or Detective Dee, but it certainly is the best film on Chow’s CV since Crouching Tiger, and is the best use of his particular brand of star power since Hard Boiled. Chow sort of plays two roles here (basically the same character since one is trained to be an assassination deterring double of the other early in the film), but is part of such a massive ensemble cast that there isn’t quite enough room to really consider this some kind of full-on comeback. Actor turned co-writer/director Jiang Wen casts himself in the central role, and is wise to play the straight man to a sea of comic relief, which mostly includes Chow, apart from some well-earned gravitas at the end of the film. However, both Chow and Jiang lose the battle for the audience’s heart to Ge You, who regularly serves up the biggest laughs, both broad and understated. It’s a little unfair, though, as Ge’s haircut alone could overwhelm even the most beloved, Oscar winning performances.
As a director Jiang has thus far been quite successful making critically acclaimed, relatively mellow, and generally humourless movies. Most recently he made the beautifully bland The Sun Also Rises, and the first, most depressingly stodgy section of the generally terrible romantic anthology New York, I Love You. I haven’t seen either of his award winning early films, 1994’s In the Heat of the Sun or 2000’s Devils on the Doorstep, but based on their descriptions neither sounds as if they have much in common with the zany extremes of Let the Bullets Fly. The film opens with an almost literal bang, establishing Jiang’s manic pace, epic scope, and silly tone. Though I suppose some viewers accustomed to Hollywood-level digital effects will have issues with the action scenes, it’s the tone that will make or break the film for most viewers. The comedy here swings pretty broad, like, Stephen Chow with a budget, broad. There are obvious comparisons to draw between Let the Bullets Fly and Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, in terms of both the gangland settings (Jiang’s film takes place in the ‘20s, Chow’s in the ‘40s), and the mixed screwball and slapstick comedy stylings. Both films feature serious, and even frightening moments, but are overall unmistakably comedies in the Chinese tradition, including plenty of sudden side treks into utter absurdity. The graphic nature of the violence will also flip some Western viewers, who likely won’t expect heaping portions of gore with their slapstick entertainment. Me? I found the grue a worthy cherry atop the broad comedy, and didn’t really find it out of step with the generally light-hearted comedic scope.
The production, art, and costume designs are all hyper-vibrant in the tradition of just about every Asian action comedy I’ve seen in the past decade, but the familiarity doesn’t diminish the buoyant effect. If I were to compare the imagery here to anything it would be spaghetti western inspired mash-ups like Takashi Miike’s lower budgeted Sukiyaki Western Django, and especially Kim Ji-woon’s aforementioned The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Jiang also takes some pretty obvious inspiration from Sergio Leone, and though he doesn’t quite have the skill for old fashion rollicking cinema Kim does, he manages quite well with hyper-stylized, decorative, and amusingly anachronistic visuals. The action isn’t nearly as wall-to-wall as the American trailer would imply, but the final act, which is basically one extended action climax, is consistently exciting and inventive. The tempo of the screwball dialogue is a bit exhausting, especially for a person that doesn’t speak Mandarin. My eyes were burning as I tried to keep up with the subtitles. In terms of comedy the speed plays (anyone that can keep up with a Stephen Chow film can keep up here), but when plot points are involved the quick cutting is a dizzying problem, and easily the key problem with the entire production. I did found myself mostly acclimated to the editing practices by the end of the film, but it is a problem, especially considering the scope of the story and sheer number of characters and double-crosses to keep track of. I hesitate to say there’s too much plot here, mostly because it makes me sound like an idiot, but there’s so much going on I found that narrative developments occasionally went unnoticed.
Well Go USA continues its streak of good but uneven Blu-ray transfers with this 1080p, 2.35:1 release. This time around, I’m not entirely sure the shortcomings are a part of the original footage, which appears to be digital, not film based. Director Jiang Wen and cinematographer Zhao Fei do not scrimp on the colour pallet, which is largely made up of warm, glowing golds, rich reds, poppy greens, and soft blues. The sheer vibrancy of these hues mixed with some soft lighting leads to some fuzzy glowing edges, though these appear to be among the intended artefacts. What may not have been intended are some blown out and blooming white levels, but I’m still left with no real point of reference. The extreme colour schemes are consistently well separated without any noticeable banding effects. My problems with this transfer pertain mostly to the quantity of digital noise, which may have been an intended effect – there aren’t any obvious compression effects or blocking – but looks a bit off to my eye. The busy backgrounds dance with the stuff, though I’m still plenty able to make out important fine detail on those occasions Zhao doesn’t pull the focus too far forward. The more extreme contrast levels of darker, wide set scenes feature noticeable haloes, though nothing quite on par with Well Go’s unattractive Ip Man release. I also noticed jittering effects throughout the film, but also think these are part of Jiang’s master plan.
If you’re going to call your film Let the Bullets Fly you’d better come correct in the sound design department. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack (original Mandarin, of course) does, indeed, come correct, and I’m unable to find anything to complain about in terms of its activity and clarity. There’s a distinct lack of ambience during dialogue heavy sequences, which is a little disappointing, but there are no issues with distortion, and the centered dialogue isn’t ever left flat or thin. The action sequences are the obvious standouts, and the action sequences featuring gunplay standout strongest of all. Every channel is busy with gunplay or the aftereffects of the gunplay, but things rarely turn to noisy mush. Dynamic levels are sharply maintained, and the directional movement makes more than enough sense. Fist fights and acrobatic feats feature plenty of directionally enhanced whoosh and zip, and the clang of metal is crisp. There’s also a fun aural motif involving birdcalls as coded battlefield communication that sets some of the more bombastic sequences apart. The LFE gets a really heavy workout thanks to the hard, echoing bass levels used for everything from gunshots to stabbing effects, giant drums, and thundering horse hooves. Joe Hisaishi and Shu Nan’s score is a little underutilized and repetitive, but effectively undercuts the tension of the action. The music is usually a bit too low on the track to really make out, but does include a myriad of aggressive Taiko drums throughout.
Well Go USA is releasing Let the Bullets Fly in both a collector’s edition and standard format. I received the standard edition with features only trailers for future Well Go releases, and a DVD copy of the film.
Let the Bullets Fly would make a solid double feature with Sergio Leone’s generally underappreciated Duck You Sucker, as both films track the journey of a bandit turned reluctant revolutionary in a stylistic and largely comedic manner. Of course, Duck You Sucker was a pretty famous financial failure, and Let the Bullets Fly is the highest grossing, domestically made film in Chinese history (not adjusted for inflation), only surpassed by (sigh) Avatar in terms of total box office receipts. Maybe Leone was ahead of his time and released his film in the wrong country. This Blu-ray release has some minor video issues (which may not be the disc’s problem at all), a nearly perfect DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and no extras outside of trailers.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 24th April 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin and English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Mandarin and English
Extras: Trailers, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jiang Wen
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Jiang Wen, Carina Lau, Ge You, Jiang Wu
Genre: Action, Comedy and Western
Length: 132 minutes
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