Opening yesterday here in Seattle after debuting a week ago in China, For a Few Bullets is a goofy adventure film, mishmash of references as haphazardly assembled as its not-quite Leone title. Set in 1940, it’s a treasure hunt chase, with a con man enlisted by a Chinese secret agent to prevent the Japanese military from stealing a MacGuffin, the imperial seal used by the first Qin Emperor. Influenced by decades of knock-offs of the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible films, it mixes a series of elaborate heists with a budding romance between the toothy, supercilious Lin Gengxin and the tough, serious-minded agent, Zhang Jingchu. She’s the best thing in the film, tightly-coiled and super-competent in the first half, but, inevitably, sadly, melting into a flowing-tressed, red-dressed, damsel in distress in the second. She literally spends the climactic scene chained to a rock like Andromeda facing the Kraken, while Lin faces-off against the film’s master villain. He’s a monster straight out of a comic book, gas-masked and leather-jacketed, a WWII-era Vader with unexplainable supernatural powers and a collection of severed heads to rival the Faceless Men of Braavos.
After a dizzying opening twenty minutes, with exposition and character background flashing on screen in comic book panels, text captions and quick, almost sensible actions scenes, the film settles down to a hectic, but comprehensible rhythm. Lin and Zhang meet up with the long lost King of Hustlers, played by Mongolian singing superstar Tengger. He’s a likable presence, an Eric Tsang type, smirking and smarter than he looks. The three travel from Northwest China across the country to Shanghai and Nanjing, trying to capture the MacGuffin as it is transported by train. This gives ample opportunity to show off some stunning locations, desert landscapes and Central Asian steppes that have only rarely been seen on-screen, the colors digitally-enhanced to fantastical levels, a slick, luminous beauty that’s as insubstantial as it is picturesque. The humor is broad, the action quick and polished, if not particularly athletic, and a healthy amount of anachronism, most obviously some elaborate Scooby-Doo-style mask work. This is film as confection, a cotton candy picture that looks neat, has some fun action-heist sequences, pretty pictures, prettier people and nothing of any real substance. Last year’s Mojin: The Lost Legend attempted to tap this same treasure-hunting vein, far less successfully as an adventure, done in as it was by murky special effects. But that film also reached back to the Cultural Revolution and forward to immigrant life in America in creating some depth for its central romance. For a Few Bullets has no such ambitions. It’s nice enough though, and everyone looks like they’re having a good time. We can tell because they’re smiling all through the movie, and in the end-credits blooper reel.