The world of difference in tone and content between actor turned director Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly and his masterful Devils on the Doorstep can be seen in the former film’s deceptively happy ending. While both Devils on the Doorstep and Let the Bullets Fly are comedies, the latter isn’t nearly as bleak as the former. Like Devils on the Doorstep, Let the Bullets Fly is an intentionally overheated and very funny comedy about how the best-laid plans tend to fall apart in spectacular fashion. But when the dust settles, Let the Bullets Fly‘s bandits can move on while the same is not true of Devils on the Doorstep‘s doomed villagers. That happy ending is weirdly generous coming from Wen, whose films are characterized by his masterfully playful brand of misanthropy. His protagonists normally can’t survive his narratives with their individual identities intact; the sweep of historical change in his films tends to be all-consuming. So when the good guys win in Let the Bullets Fly, it signals a great turning point in Wen’s essential oeuvre.
Wen stars as Pocky Zhang, a bandit that robs a train carrying Ma Bangde (Ge You) and his wife (Carina Lau), con artists who had planned on tricking the residents of Goose Town into thinking that Ma was their new governor. Zhang likes Ma’s idea so much that he holds him captive and pretends to be Goose Town’s governor. As soon as he comes to town, however, Zhang finds himself embroiled in a fierce ping-ponging battle of egos with local gangster Huang (Chow Yun-Fat). Once that central antagonism is established, Let the Bullets Fly almost exclusively revolves around a series of perpetually escalating skirmishes between Huang and Zhang.
By the time the film wraps up, Zhang is fully committed to the idea of seeing justice done in Goose Town. Everyone should have some power in the town, not just Huang, no matter what the cost of that redistribution is. In that sense, Let the Bullets Fly has got a radical central philosophy, one whose sense of laissez-faire individualism insists that the most independent characters in the film are Zhang’s anonymous gang of bandits. As a group, their only static identities are their numerical names. Even Zhang doesn’t answer to his surname until later in the film. For the most part, he’s either called the Governor or Number Nine. Which under any other circumstances would make him harder to cozy up to. But somehow the opposite is true. Huang, a tyrant that is always identified by name, is selfish, paranoid, and a malicious liar. Number Nine/The Governor/Zhang is also a liar, but he’s a liar for the people.
Which is a fascinating concept for Wen to tackle in a broad comedy like Let the Bullets Fly. His narrative does everything it can to be funny first and quietly didactic after that. But the fact remains that while the film is Wen’s most popular and financially successful film yet, it’s also his most radical. The people that Zhang rescues from Huang are fundamentally just as greedy as himself: One of the Goose Townites even snatches up the chairs that Zhang and Huang are seated on during their final tête-à-tête. They’re craven, but they’re also human. They need a justified con man like Zhang to lead them to victory. When that good deed has been done, he can disappear knowing that his job’s done. Here’s hoping Wen can keep fooling mass audiences into accepting his outré historical dramas, if only for a little while longer.