With For a Few Bullets, writer and director Pan Anzi (who now goes by Peter Pan, believe it or not) returns to the genre of the zany Inner Mongolia-set period caper which he had already essayed with 2012’s Scheme with Me, starring Richie Ren. This time Pan had a bigger budget and larger stylistic ambitions. For a Few Bullets is set in the 1940s and tells of Chinese government agent Ruoyun (Zhang Jingchu) who teams up with con man Xiao Zhuang to recover a priceless imperial stamp that was found in a lost tomb by the Japanese army, whose leaders (including Kenneth Tsang) plan to use it in their bid to subjugate China. As they learn to trust – and even love – each other, race through the Gobi desert and deal with countless double-crosses, a dastardly Russian generals and a inhuman Japanese executioner, Ruoyun and Xiao Zhuang are helped by legendary hustler Shi Fu (Tenggeer) and his fiery wife San Niang (Liu Xiaoqing).
For a Few Bullets is a pure caper with hints of Italian western aesthetics, a heavy debt to tomb-raiding adventures à la Indiana Jones, and a dash of Hellboy-ish steampunk. It’s a highly derivative films that is so straightforward about its inspirations that it actually borrows from them wholesale. It has an ancient-artifact-sought-for-military-purposes plot, a market chase (where the fugitive hides in a wicker basket) and a truck chase right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and an entire comedic scene lifted from The Last Crusade (the “no ticket” punchline). It has elaborate infiltration and switch-up schemes with the use of unbelievable masks and split-second timing like the Mission: Impossible films, the theft of a key during a ballroom dance like John Woo’s Once a Thief…We could go on for a while. It’s a very derivative film, where loving homage often looks like shameless pilfering, in the absence of a fresh spin to put on these familiar scenes and tropes.
Still, if one can gloss over the film’s derivativeness, there’s quite a bit of fun to be had. It’s a pacey, playful mix of the aforementioned genres, that’s busy and energetic without getting overbearing. Except in some instances of dopey CGI backgrounds or cityscapes, it also has a pleasingly exotic sheen to it, and action director Jacky Yeung knows how to put together a vigorous action scene, though some gravity-defying moments do jar a bit in what is supposed to be a grounded adventure. The unexpectedly violent finale is also one of the film’s few original moments, a phantasmagoric fight against a mysterious executioner in heavy military apparel and a gas mask, who can apparently multiply. Kenny Lin has a blandness that makes his energy and constant smarmy grinning more annoying than entertaining, but it doesn’t matter because the film belongs to Zhang Jingchu, who gives a strong, sexy and affecting performance as an action heroine that would have deserved her own franchise, had the film not underperformed. Singer Tenggeer and the ever-youthful Liu Xiaoqing (who at 60 looks about 25 years younger) are fine comic relief as a bickering couple of scoundrels, while good old Kenneth Tsang still excels in bone-chilling villain roles.
Long Story Short: A derivative but pacey and playful adventure, For a Few Bullets is a good showcase for Zhang Jingchu’s reinvention as an action heroine. ***