There’s an observation in This Is Spinal Tap that sums up the dilemma of many detective stories: there’s a fine line between clever and stupid.
Successful detective stories provide satisfying solutions to mysteries, no matter how improbable. Given, most of these stories don’t give a reader or viewer a chance to guess the solution on their own, but if the story can be told with enough intrigue, the resolution winds up satisfying so long as it avoids impossibility.
The Bullet Vanishes is clever for the vast majority of its runtime. While it never becomes completely stupid, the film borders on stupidity because it tries to be too clever one time too many. It’s like in cartoons where a comically large load on someone’s back is perfectly fine, but then a feather lightly falls on top and makes everything too heavy.
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The Bullet Vanishes (Ghost Bullets | Disappeared Bullets | 消失的子彈)
Director: Law Chi-Leung
Country: China / Hong Kong
Release Date: August 14, 2012 (China)
The material above the cut sort of makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy The Bullet Vanishes, but that’s not the case at all. It’s such a stylish, fun period piece with welcome surprises along the way. While it’s set in the 1920s, it melds the sensibilities of other times, cultures, and genres. This is a movie where gunfights out of a contemporary Hong Kong film feel right at home with Western-style quickdraws, and where the fastest gun in the East belongs to a man with incredible skills of deduction.
The two leads of the film are Nicholas Tse and Lau Ching-Wan. Tse plays Captain Guo Zhui, an action-oriented young detective who’s fast on the trigger. We’re first introduced to him when he’s hot on someone’s trail in the red light district. A daring leap from a building is followed by a quick yet meticulous dissection of small clues, the sort of stuff that wouldn’t feel out of place in Sherlock Holmes stories or the Batman TV show with Adam West. Lau plays Inspector Song Dalu, an older criminologist who’s got a finely-tuned mind. We’re first introduced to him in what seems like an attempted suicide, but it’s really just unorthodox forensics. This is how far he’s willing to go to get his man.
Our detective duo and a rookie policeman named Xiaowu (Boran Jing) are sent to investigate a series of strange murders at a munitions factory. The victims are found shot on the premises, but with no trace of an actual bullet anywhere in the bodies or at the crime scene. The workers attribute it to “the curse of the phantom bullet,” which involves a co-worker who died playing Russian roulette after being accused of stealing bullets. So think The Hound of the Baskervilles by way of The Deer Hunter.
There’s a compelling dynamic that develops between Tse and Lau. It’s not like one’s a dumb rookie and the other’s a by-the-books veteran, and it’s not just another union between the hothead and someone who’s cool as a cucumber. These cliche pairings are hinted at but avoided. Instead there’s a mutual respect. These are men who admire each other’s minds and methods and are committed to cracking this case. Maybe it’s like Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes (this would be Tse) teaming up with Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes (this would be Lau). I got a sense that each of these guys would have been able to solve the mystery of the phantom bullet on their own, but by working together, they get the job done faster.
You can also contrast the characters with the two women in their lives. For the young captain, it’s a fortune teller/tipper he knows named Little Skylark (Mini Yang). She might be able to ground his devil-may-care ways with her growing concern for his well-being. On the flipside for the older inspector is Fu Yuan (Jiang Yiyan), a female prisoner who orchestrated a perfect crime. While there’s the possibility of romance for Tse’s character, I never got a sense of it for Lau’s. It seems like love’s no longer a possibility for Inspector Song. What he and Fu Yuan get to share is a realization about the nature of good, evil, and moral compromises.
Technically there’s a third woman in Li Jia, a coroner/forensics specialist played Yumiko Cheng. She’s more a helper during the CSI moments of the film (with many shots looking out of a cadaver through the rib cage and sternum) rather than a potential source of love. To put it another way, she’s a source of functional knowledge rather than the fount of new outlooks on life. Actually, there’s a fourth woman in our detectives’s lives if you count the ostrich that Li Jia keeps in her workplace. (Don’t ask.)
Too clever isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (And neither is stupid, come to think of it, at least in some films.) I don’t think the eventual too-cleverness in The Bullet Vanishes undermines the rest of what works in the film, because a lot of it does. It hits that odd sweet spot where if enough elements I enjoy are brought together — old industrial machinery, kooky sleuths, unconventional solutions, dapper old-timey fashion, an unexpected sense of melancholy or pathos under the humor — I’m willing to forgive the shortcoming or the overreach.
If anything, this overreach is a way for the movie to come back to the characters at the heart of this film. The plot is a way to explore two detectives, with focus on their methods and their philosophies of life. Like Captain Gho, I can at least follow the footprints and figure out why the film did what it did even if I didn’t think it worked. And yet so many other solutions presented in The Bullet Vanishes are so good, and director Law Chi-Leung successfully gives his overarching mysteries, sub-mysteries, and interpersonal intrigues room to breathe. It’s all a question of how much is too much and how clever is too clever.
The more that I think about it, The Bullet Vanishes ended on the right emotional note for me. The problem is how it got there. Given, it gets there with a very tense and well-crafted scene, but something about it seems off key. This is the kind of stuff that doesn’t make sense in the moment, and it makes even less sense the more you think about it. I’m curious what the guys in Spinal Tap would say about being too clever for your own good.