Review: Vanguard

Year: 2020
Runtime: 110 minutes
Director/Writer: Stanley Tong
Stars: Jackie Chan, Yang Yang, Miya Muqi, Ai Lun, Zhu Zhengting, Fady Zaky, Xu Ruo Han, Jackson Lou

By Harris Dang

Remember decades ago, when an upcoming project from martial arts superstar Jackie Chan was a joyous occasion? When he used to make projects that combined his amazing stuntwork, his affable charisma and his comedic chops to deliver all-around entertainment for the masses? It has been a long time since then. Over the last 10 years, Chan’s oeuvre has been on a gradual decline. While people would think that the major reason for it would be his age but unfortunately, that is not the case. Ever since 2008, his presence in Hong Kong cinema has been diminishing more and more due to his emergence in the China market. From there, he has become a major stalwart not only in Chinese films but also the government.
In terms of his film output, his films have been relegated to China-market censorship and customs. Now that may sound harmless on paper, it is very much anything but. With negatively received films like “Kung Fu Yoga” (2017), “Bleeding Steel” (2017) and “Dragon Blade” (2015), his presence is getting ever more and more diminutive in terms of his action chops. Now we have his latest action film “Vanguard” (2020), which reunites Chan with director Stanley Tong. The two have worked on films ever since “Police Story 3: Supercop” back in 1993 and have collaborated several times on films like “First Strike”, “The Myth” (2005) and most recently, Kung Fu Yoga. Will Vanguard be the right step back to former glories for both of them?
Unfortunately, that is not the case. “Vanguard” is a ridiculously silly action film and not in a good way. Say what you want with films like “Kung Fu Yoga”, “Bleeding Steel” and “Dragon Blade”; at least with those films, there is a modicum of the charisma that made audiences love Chan in the first place. In the case of “Vanguard”, we barely even get any evidence of that. There are small moments that do become quite nostalgic of both Chan and Tong’s work. Like the casting of Jackson Lou (who is best known for working with Tong in films like “First Strike” (1996) and “China Strike Force” [2000]) to familiar settings like an aquarium (which hearkens back to “First Strike”) and moments of self-awareness (where Chan is about to attempt a stunt which involves him jumping down from floor to floor but someone tells him to take the stairs), these moments do work but unfortunately, there is not much of them. Even with top billing, Chan is relegated to an extended cameo as the head boss of “Vanguard”. He participates in the action scenes but his work lacks the melding of action and comedy he is known for. While it is certainly unfair for audiences to ask him to do major leaps in stunt work due to his advanced age, his star-power is gradually becoming more and more dwindling as time goes on. Speaking of action scenes, surely the collaboration of Chan and Tong would spell quality on that factor. Again, that is not the case. To be fair, the actors admirably do their own stunt work and martial arts – as it is shown in the outtakes in the end credits – and their capabilities in handling the choreography – which includes elements of jiu jitsu, wing chun and improvised weaponry like the use of chili and kitchen implements – are executed well enough. However, the frenetic editing undercuts the sense of impact from the action, rendering it weightless and numbing.
It does not help that “Vanguard” has a horrendous script from Tong. A good action director he is but a good scriptwriter, he definitely is not. The plot itself is no great shakes but at least it can be convincing as a throughline for basic emotions and a gradual escalation of tension, but Tong does not seem to be interested in that. What he is interested in is throwing on the screen and seeing what sticks. From clichés (a loving father put into a life-or-death situation been given a badge from his son) to illogicalities (apparently, a human being can survive after being shot with an elephant tranquilizer) to laugh-out-loud details (one of the villainous gangs is called Brotherhood of Vengeance) and to China-market humour (a “brownface” gag is apparently funny to the masses), the film becomes tediously predictable. The film does not even reach the inspired moments of idiocy that “Bleeding Steel” had since the film begs to be taken seriously for the most part. There is no evidence of him trying to make his characters memorable or even the least bit interesting. If anything, they are not characters; they are cardboard cutouts. The script is so detrimental to the point where you feel sorry for the actors who are trying their best to add some life to their roles. One is handsome (whom is suggested as a bachelor), one is eye candy (whom is put in a situation to pretend to be a model), one is a father, one is Jackie Chan; there is not one modicum of interest other than blatant attempts at Chinese propaganda which is awfully referenced through a Captain America shoutout. Which begs the question – how can one be immersed in the action if one does not care about the characters?
And the worst thing about the film is that Tong does not seem to care about all the criticisms that his last film “Kung Fu Yoga” had. What is the most memorable thing about that film? The horrific special effects. Even with veteran stuntman Bruce Law handling the vehicular mayhem, the car chases are unbelievably terrible. The cars are weightless, the impact is slim to nil and the stunts are illogical to the point that it looks like a very bad cartoon. Say what you want about the car chases in the recent film “Train to Busan – Peninsula” (2020), at least those scenes had a clear directorial eye and are composed for maximum impact and clarity. But the ones in “Vanguard”, they are just cringing to the extreme. And what is the deal with Tong and his use of wild animals in his films? The CGI rendering of the lions and hyenas are just horrifyingly fake, that makes the animals in the Megan Fox film “Rogue” look Oscar-worthy. And that sums up “Vanguard”; a horrifyingly fake action blockbuster that is monotonous, labourious and bereft of any charm and wit expected from the talents of Chan and Tong. “Vanguard” will be released in US cinemas nationwide on November 20th.

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