Mainstream American filmmaking has largely grown to be so lifeless and self-conscious that the genre films imported over from China can often seem like a breath of fresh air, particularly after a long summer of bloated American sludge, and The Bullet Vanishes is an especially enjoyable case in point. To say that Lo Chi-leung’s film is unoriginal is a gross understatement, as there are probably 50 movies (primarily American) that obviously inform it, but the film wears its references lightly; it’s been made with a giddy sense of pleasure in craftsmanship that’s irresistible.
The Bullet Vanishes most obviously plays as a Chinese gloss on the Guy Ritchie-helmed Sherlock Holmes movies (and the film’s poster encourages this association). Song (Lau Ching-wan) is an eccentric detective known, in the tradition of many detectives to appear in films and popular literature, for his empathetic ability to reconstruct the minute specifics of a crime in his mind. Perhaps because he’s growing to be a bit of a nuisance to the folks on his home turf (his prevailing concern is reversing wrongful convictions, which doesn’t exactly endear him to his precinct), Song is sent to Shanghai to ferret out corrupt police officers, a mission that immediately finds him neck-deep in a mystery involving a number of factory workers who were shot with bullets that seem to disappear from crime scenes despite any evidence of anything having been tampered with. The workers, who manufacture bullets (hint) for a venal foreman (hint) and his even worse superior (hint hint), believe the murders to be the work of a curse sprung on them by a woman unfairly killed in the film’s opening moments.
With the exception of the clever explanation for the phantom bullets, the plot is predictable, convoluted, and not without its seams, but its mostly just a pretense that allows Chi-leung and his collaborators to indulge their delight for shoot-outs, betrayals, and last-minute reversals—all of which are set to the 1930s Shanghai of your movie-fed dreams. The Bullet Vanishes is unapologetically concerned with the aesthetic pleasure that can be had from watching handsome actors in perfectly tailored period suits scurry from alleyway to elaborately designed bar to spookily remote factory while firing guns at bad guys in one impeccably staged set piece after another.
The actors also lend The Bullet Vanishes an emotional gravity that helps to smooth over the film’s sudden transition from murder mystery to a distinctively Chinese shoot ‘em up that’s concerned with the price of uncompromised honor among heroes and crooks. Ching-wan, with his unique and poignant old-catcher’s-mitt mug, plays Song with an element of humility and emotional vulnerability that’s a pointed relief from the smug vaudeville act that one has come to expect from Robert Downey Jr.’s appearances as Sherlock Holmes. And as Song’s partner, Nicholas Tse does something that’s difficult for most actors: He plays outward decency without turning his character into a putz. And it’s a prevailing sense of decency, in fact, that explains why The Bullet Vanishes is such an effective tonic for summer-movie fatigue.