Violent, cruel, and funny, Let The Bullets Fly is a 1920-set Chinese crime comedy with a Western flair that pits big shot Chow Yun-Fat against bandit-turned-conman “Pocky” (as in pockmarked) Jiang Wen in a battle of brutality and social competition that’s entertaining, though not always easy to follow. Chow, in spite of his fondness for suits and the veneer of civilization, is actually a major opium-runner and gangster, and Jiang, in spite of his background as the area’s most-wanted outlaw, is pretending to be the town’s new official, so the conflict between the two plays out via surface politesse and stealth ambushes. There are action sequences in which masked men communicate via birdcalls amid a shootout in the hills, but one of the most brutal acts occurs in a courtroom, in which a man is maneuvered into gutting himself to prove he didn’t steal.
Jiang’s character stumbles into the troubled setting of Goose Town after robbing a train in the countryside and finding that instead of money, it’s carrying Counselor Ge You, who’s bought himself a governorship and intends to use it to bilk the locals out of their taxes. Jiang likes the plan and decides to take the role of governor himself, bringing Ge and his witheringly jaded wife (Carina Lau) along as advisors. He comes into conflict with Chow almost immediately, and as the body count escalates, their contention shifts from being about money to being about power and revenge. Let The Bullets Fly leaves plenty of room for its starry cast to show off their talents—Chow is smiles and menace, Ge obsequious and deceitful, Lau contemptuous and amused, and Jiang the gruff, deadpan center. Whole scenes exist seemingly just to allow these characters to bounce off each other in new combinations, with Chow and Jiang having an especially great, crackling chemistry based off surface agreeableness, hidden aggression, and below that, an almost-fond recognition that they’re all just crooks.
Let The Bullets Fly has a pitch-black sense of humor in which the sometimes-cartoonish style of violence never softens the actual blow; as one character dies, he claims his bottom hurts, and the man consoling him points out that his bottom half is actually yards away, stuck in a tree, so it can’t be causing pain. That dedicated wryness makes the endless twists and betrayals easier to process—these are awful people, but it’s sure a lot of fun to watch them fight it out.