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For a Few Bullets
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by Jay Seaver

"Raiders of the Lost Stamp."
3 stars

When "For a Few Bullets" ends and the main titles come up, the first one displayed is "A Film by Peter Pan", and it's okay to chuckle. Pan Anzi could have maybe chosen a Western name that didn't have it's own built-in punchline, but it fits in this case. He's made the sort of big, swashbuckling action/adventure that someone who pledged to never grow up might make, full of frantic action and plot twists that could really use some dialing back.

It takes place in 1940, when Japan was consolidating its grip on Asia and were planning on installing a puppet government in Nanjing, headed by Chinese traitor Song Jingzhi (Vivian Dawson). He's assassinated by Li Ruo-yun (Zhang Jingchu), but that only slows things down. The Japanese have a plan to fund and legitimize their invasion by acquiring a treasure held by Russian warlord Kivenov (Andrey Karybin), so Li recruits con artist Xiao Zhuang (Kenny Lin Gengxin) to help steal it, although there is a gauntlet to be run across Manchuria to prevent it from falling into the hands of Japanese general Oda Koki (Kenneth) and "The Phantom", a larger-than-life concentration-camp executioner.

The ingredients for a pretty damn good pulp adventure are there, and a popular one - treasure-hunting stories are incredibly popular in China right now, and fusing it to a big "Machurian Western" along the lines of The Good, the Bad, the Weird covers a lot of freewheeling adventure bases. Pan (and a huge brace of consulting and collaborating writers) throws everything and the kitchen sink into it, and a new roller-coaster ride is always around the corner, with plenty of energy behind it. The production design people make just about every frame a joy to look at, with the desert a warm, almost inviting yellow and Li's elaborately detailed six-shooters going with everything from a western-inspired outfit to a severe uniform.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem to suffer from a collective short attention span without a whole lot of interest in figuring out how to tie everything together. There's a genuinely stupid rivalry between Zhuang and another con artist that sends the mission off-course a number of times, and it sometimes seems like the group can't stay on the train for more than five minutes before being tossed off again, although they're able to make their way on foot through the desert to catch up. Most frustrating, though, is that the movie has a real villain problem - Koki and the Phantom are too far away to regularly impact Ruo-yun and Zhuang directly, and none of the guys they do encounter are worthy adversaries, exiting almost as quickly as they enter and never giving the heroes something to measure themselves against. Sometimes the writers just shrug off any troubles they've created - sure, Ryo-yun just pointed out that throwing the pilot out was a bad idea, but two minutes later, after a shot showing just how many instruments are involved, she can apparently fly a plane.

The film also has a frustratingly juvenile sense of humor at times. Maybe the the actual Mandarin dialog is better, but the subtitles render Zhuang's "flirting" with Ruo-yun as "have I slept with you before? I am going to sleep with you at some point", and that's not exactly entertaining innuendo, nor is a sequence where Zhuang's hands seem to go out of their way to find Ruo-yun's breasts and stay there for a beat or three longer than is funny. The shame of it is, they are a really good pairing when the film isn't forcing it. Kenny Lin may spend the bulk of the movie turned up a little too high, but Zhang Jingchu more than offsets it with the serious Ryo-yun, and when she does lighten up a bit, such as when she starts laughing in delight during the scene where the pair are learning to dance, she's a genuine delight.

And while there may too much of a lot of things, Pan and his crew do a pretty good job of making the action sequences sing in the moment. There's no shame in not quite being Steven Spielberg when trying to make something recalling Raiders of the Lost Ark, as a certain trucks-chasing-airplane sequence certainly implies, but they still do a good job of bringing out the right sort of exuberance, and if some things like Phantom's ability to cast illusions are kind of goofily anachronistic, there's still fun to it, even if certain bits overdo the pulp craziness.

I don't want to fault "For a Few Bullets" too much for trying to cram more fast-paced action/adventure material in their movie than it can really hold; it's certainly better than movies that have to stretch. It's just a case where trying to run at full speed for two straight hours means the audience needs a bit of a breather or something to hold on to that this movie doesn't quite have.

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originally posted: 07/26/16 00:55:48
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Directed by
  Anzi Pan

Written by
  Anzi Pan
  Zhi-yong Zhou

  Kenny Lin
  Jingchu Zhang
  Vivian Dawson
  Xiaquing Liu

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