AVAILABLE ON DIGITAL 8TH JANUARY, BLU-RAY AND 11TH JANUARY, from CINE ASIA
RUNNING TIME: 108 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
In London, Maasym, leader of the terrorist organisation Brothers of Vengeance, forces a contract on accountant Qin Guoli to finance his projects. Qin tips off Scotland Yard and Maasym is killed by US forces, but his son Omar survives and, wanting his father’s money, kidnaps Qin and his wife Mewei. Vanguard, an international security company assigned to protect Qin, carries out a successful rescue, but Qin then asks Vanguard’s director Tang Huanting to protect his daughter Fareeda, who is currently in Africa, before Omar can use her as leverage against him….
I sometimes read comments and even reviews which claim that Jackie Chan isn’t as good as he used to be. I’m sorry but my answer is “Duh”? Chan is now 66 years old and, while he not just looks darn good for his age but can still things you or I couldn’t do, one seriously cannot expect him to still be doing stuff like hanging onto the side of a bus with a walking stick, sliding down the side of a skyscraper, and leaping from a building to grab a rope ladder that’s suspended from a helicopter, then hanging on for dear life as the chopper flies through a city, narrowly missing all sorts of buildings as it does so. And nor can one reasonably expect him to move as fast, be as athletic and show as much fighting skill, even though he could probably still best me and five of my mates in about ten seconds. No, the problem these days is that the workaholic, who should probably slow down his workload far more than he has, just isn’t very choosy about what he appears in. While still tending to go for comedic action adventures [I personally wish he’d make more stuff like Shinjuku Incident and The Foreigner] which feature him in the kind of role he’s been playing for several decades, the quality just isn’t what it used to be for a variety of reasons, some of them probably inescapable.
Vanguard pairs Chan with writer/director Stanley Tong, who deserves more credit than he actually gets for his importance in Chan’s career. His Rumble In The Bronx was Chan’s first big break in the West, Tong hitting on a formula that slightly westernised the Chan movie, notably toning down the humour, without losing many of its unique qualities. However, it’s hard to see the Tong of that movie and Police Story 3: Supercop in the likes of the more recent Kung Fu Yoga and even The Myth, an elaborate misfire, while Chan seems to have less input into the films he stars in even as said films now have to be approved by the Chinese government and therefore contain a bit of pro-Chinese propaganda. Oh dear, we’re on the subject of politics already! I try my best to forget that the incredible action star I grew up loving has criticised protests in Hong Kong and said things like “us Chinese need to be controlled”. But in this movie, the son of one of the main characters has a toy of a xharacter named Captain China who’s “mightier than Captain America”, and throughout we get an unpleasant feeling of the Chinese characters all being really noble unlike those awful foreigners. But I thought I’d say all that now so that I can get politics out of the way and focus on supposedly more important things like plot, acting and action – especially action – in what is a pretty fun romp for a while until it begins to get curiously tiresome despite throwing in mayhem by the bucket load, and all but drowns in a sea of stupidity and lousy CGI in what is a rather fake, plasticy-looking movie all-round. Yes, the days when these movies were full of stunt persons doing crazy death-defying things seem to be long gone, though I will say that Chan did almost drown performing one scene.
Surely we don’t need to be told that an opening shot of London Bridge means that we’re in London? Anyway, the Chinese New Year celebrations are happening, and at Trafalgar Square crowd a man observing another man tells someone on his phone, “he’s finally slithered out of his cave”. Cut to two men bringing presents to their relatives in a Chinatown restaurant. They’re actually agents belonging to this security company named Vanguard, and are soon called away to rescue accountant Qin and his new wife Meiwei. The actual kidnapping by the Arctic Wolves features a bit of unpleasant ‘shakycam’ and I was preparing to have to deliver my usual whinge about this technique in this review, but thankfully it doesn’t return, and we’re treated to a pretty good action sequence as Lei and Zhang break into the house where Qin and Meiwei are being held captive with Meiwei about to be shot – and despite the overall family-friendly nature of the piece these villains are menacing enough for us to think that they could very well carry out such a thing. Yang Yang, currently a major current heart throb in China, is not a trained martial artist, but he’s certainly learnt enough moves to convince in on-screen fighting, which here leads to a fine scene set in a kitchen where Lei uses whatever’s at hand, much like Chan used to do so brilliantly. He even rubs chili on his hands so he can blind an opponent which is just something Chan would have done; in fact it’s almost a variant on something he did actually do in Project A Part 2. Yang even does some typical Chan-like reactions to being hurt. The climax of the sequence is when Ah Lun, the other guy, shows he’s been learning from Martin Riggs as he runs and grabs Qin so they both fall from a window onto a lion dance, even though he didn’t even look out the window first. How hardcore is that?
It’s nearly 15 minutes and Chan hasn’t appeared yet, but then again he doesn’t really play the main character – he’s just one of several main characters. He’s Tang, the head of this organisation, which must be why he wears glasses when he’s in the group’s headquarters even if he doesn’t when he’s out on the field. Tang, Lei, and another Vanguard person Miya travel to Africa and find Qin’s daughter Fareeda. They first see her fooling around with a CG lion in slow motion to a cheesy musical acompliment in a rather cringey moment; when Tang cries out “they’re real lions”! one has to laugh but not necessarily in the way the filmmakers probably intended. They soon find themselves having to contend with the Arctic Wolves and also a poaching gang who’ve been hired as additional muscle, the latter cue for an environmental theme which looks like it’s going to be a major part of the film but which instead soon disappears. Lei and Fareeda are separated from the others and he spends the night in her bizarre treehouse which consists of a huge wheel made of branches. The two fall in love, not that enough time is spent on this for it to really register. Instead, it’s all about the Vanguard lot, which sometimes include other members including one guy who flies around on jet skies, going from location to location to engage in gunplay and fighting in a manner which more resembles a Mission Impossible episode than a James Bond one, only that there isn’t an Ethan Hunt equivalent to dominate – it’s even more all about the team. There’s some cool spy tech including bee drones and a jeep which becomes a boat, a honey trap sequence which doesn’t really seem necessary, a moment where things seem to be genuinely tragic before a miracle happens which Captain China may possibly have been the cause of, and a fleet of gold cars in what is a pretty standard ‘terrorists with even deadlier weapons than usual’ scenario.
Chan is able to do some nice little bits and pieces, the high point being when he rolls onto the front bonnet of a car and into the front passenger seat. He’s rarely looked comfortable firing a gun, which is why even in a film like this where he fires guns a lot, he still works in some of his old firearm gags. Xu Ruohan [Fareeda] also gets to do some stuff despite having a typical old-fashioned ‘dumb female’ moment when she accidentally shoots the wrong person with her tranquiliser gun. The best sustained action sequence occurs nearly half way through. A chase on rapids with people battling on some of the crafts manages to hit surprising heights of excitement despite the water being obviously CG. But after this a bit of interest is lost as repetition sets in and we get several instances where the good guys could have killed the bad guys but somehow choose to just knock them out so that the bad guys soon come back chasing them again, and the climax, with its slight echoes of Police Story and Police Story 4; First Strike, teases you because it seems to be on the on the verge of becoming really something – and then hastily wraps up! Some crazy car stuff a bit earlier involving the likes of jumping over walls just wasn’t exciting to me because none of it’s being done for real. It’ll probably thrill kids just like the things you see in the Fast And Furious films, but for us oldies it just meets with a shrug and a nostalgia for the days before CGI was able to fake everything. And “fake” is the word here; from animals to explosions, the visual effects are just not particularly good. So many of the shots look digitally composed in a film which strives to look lush and beautiful – and to be fair the colours do pop out at you even if one can get fed up with the way appearances by female characters are shot like shampoo commercials – but which also comes across as being oddly claustrophobic, with so little feel for the various locales that some of it may as well have been set anywhere.
The bad guys veer from being genuinely intimidating to being clowns who even employ hyenas, one of whom crashes into an open car door. Acting is generally mediocre, though that’s often the case, and I did laugh at the dumb main henchman who, when told off by his boss for letting the good goys go, replies, “I am the best because I have patience”. Vanguard doesn’t really flow, with some very awkward transitions and more fades to black than in any film I’ve seen in ages, though the frantic pace is certainly maintained throughout it’s 108 minutes. With real thrills in short supply, Tong tries and succeeds in partially compensating with constant movement, though the losing of one or two fairly inconsequential action sequences wouldn’t have made much difference at all to the end result and may even have improved it. There are a few knowing references to past glories, notably when Tang is about to leap over a shopping mall’s guard rail in order to nab a suspect, a moment which recalls Chan’s Christmas lights mall jump in Police Story. A security guard stops Tang with the words, “Wait! There’s stairs over there”. But of course the trouble with this kind of thing is that we’re just reminded of how great those good old days really were, and I’d personally prefer it if these films tried a bit harder to succeed on their own merits. Vanguard isn’t exactly terrible, and I think that kids will love it despite the rather harsh ’15’ certificate, which is why I’d still cautiously recommend it. But I really think that it’s high time Chan, who once upon a time said that he wanted to be “the Asian Robert de Niro”, became more selective in terms of what he appears in and finished with the comedy kung fu stuff. He just looks awkward and even a little sad in these things now.
*Exclusive featurettes with director Stanley Tong