Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Tribeca 2011: Let the Bullets Fly

For the next month, Jeremiah and Jeff will be spending almost all of their free time watching and reviewing movies from this year's Tribeca Film Festival. It's about to get indie up in here!

Billed as a “Western comedy,” the frenetically paced Let the Bullets Fly is more accurately described as a Chinese mash-up of Kung Fu Hustle and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Bullets fly in cartoonish quantities, but writer/director/star Jiang Wen has more ammunition in the dialogue department. Whip-smart banter is slung about in frenzied bursts, sometimes making Bullets an exhausting experience for even the most keen-eyed subtitle reader. If you can handle not blinking for two hours, Bullets is a blast.

When a train heist leaves Wen’s honorable bandit with a conniving politician for a hostage, Wen decides to assume his identity and governorship, intent on hustling gold from his wealthy Goose Town constituents.  However, Wen finds that Goose Town is already being sucked dry by Chow Yun-Fat’s gold-toothed warlord. What follows is an epic battle of wits – imagine Robin Hood taking on a Nottingham with a mind as duplicitous as a David Mamet character. Wen is great as the noble bandit, and his gang is filled with colorful characters, but Chow Yun-Fat truly steals the show. It’s a pleasure to see him toss off the white hat and ham it up as the nefarious warlord and his obsequious double.

While Bullets features the typically stylized action sequences of Asian cinema, the film doesn’t deliver nearly as many showdowns as the title suggests. Wen is much more concerned with the schemes of his two leads. It’s a two-hour chess match where new plots are foiled as quickly as they’re hatched. Characters hide behind masks, secret identities, and even Saddam Hussein style body doubles. Allegiances shift, double-crosses turn into triple-crosses. The plotting is as enthralling as any number of shootouts, so long as you can keep track of it.

Bullets is a wild ride. It has an energy I find unique to Asian cinema, where a film can be unrepentantly goofy and spastically energetic, without sacrificing character or emotion. That’s best encapsulated in a death scene where an exploded man says his somber goodbyes, his legs comically dangling from a tree in the background. Bullets is a unique blend of genre elements with plot and pacing that should keep viewers on their toes.

VERDICT:  See it.

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