You can sense that Grady Hendrix, writing for Slate, relishes the fact that "the most savage anti-corruption movie ever made in China, and the most cynical comedy about state-sponsored criminality, has not only received an official release, it has become the most popular Chinese movie of all time. Let the Bullets Fly came out in December 2010 and by the end of January 2011 it had shattered the previous record for highest-grossing Chinese language movie and become the second-highest-grossing movie ever released in China, second only to James Cameron's Avatar."
And now that Bullets has begun its slow roll-out across North America, Hendrix is wondering how Americans (and Canadians) will take to it: "It's rare for a movie this mean-spirited to be such a crowd-pleaser, but Chinese audiences took up the cause of Bullets with a vengeance. Analyses of its symbolism and its fast-paced, double-talk dialogue jammed the Internet. Some critics saw the movie as an attack on corruption, some saw it as an attack on the mainstream film industry, some saw it as a conservative film, some saw it as liberal, some saw it as merely a thrill ride, some saw it as a hilarious comedy — but everyone saw it. In America, audiences are liable to find the popularity of this uniquely Chinese movie puzzling, as it traffics in that most Chinese of art forms, pure metaphor." He elaborates, of course, poking into several of the various readings he mentions.
In the Voice, Nick Schager offers another, arguing that "the film operates as an unsubtle but boisterous Robin Hood-style fable of socialist values — a political stance most strikingly conveyed by the sight of a true believer, wrongly accused of stealing and eating an extra bowl of jelly, then proving his innocence via self-disembowelment."
"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," finds Alison Willmore at the AV Club.
Peter Nellhaus calls it "a sometimes violent action adventure film with the anarchy and humor of a Marx Brothers movie. This is Duck Soup with blood and bullets." For the New York Times' Jeannette Catsoulis, it's "an unfortunately exhausting experience": "At least 30 minutes and several scams too long, the plot passes from amusing to confounding long before the final double-cross." For Robert Abele, writing in the Los Angeles Times, it "promises genre pleasures it routinely leaves un-triggered in its chamber."
More from Simon Abrams (Slant, 3/4) and Mark Zhuravsky (Playlist, B).