Stanley Tong knows how to make a popcorn action movie. The director cut his teeth on bargain bin classics such as Police Story 3: Super Cop, a film that introduced him to China’s greatest ever movie export – Jackie Chan.
Vanguard marks the seventh collaboration between the pair, in a remarkably fruitful relationship that’s seen them build some of the biggest grossing movies to come out of China, hence a bloated budget for the globe-trotting Vanguard. Sadly, for a pair who have been remarkably inventive when short on cash, extra funds don’t mean extra fun.
The plot revolves around an accountant, Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou), who was once forced to do some dodgy work for a criminal, Maasym, who he then ratted on. And now Maasym’s son, Omar (Eyad Hourani), wants revenge – and the money his father hid away, the location of which is known only to Guoli. So as the New Year celebrations in London’s Chinatown commence, a group of bad guys – known as Arctic Wolves – are planning to kidnap Qin and his wife. Fortunately for the accountant, he’s hired Vanguard to protect him. And when a security firm is run by Jackie Chan, we can expect them to be pretty good at stopping the bad guys.
And so it proves. But Omar won’t let the matter lie, and before long Chan and his colleagues are heading to Africa and the Middle East to deal with Omar and his surprisingly large group of mercenaries. With Chan now in his mid-sixties, it’s admirable that the action legend is still willing to put himself through the mill as wholeheartedly as he does here. That said, it seems like a wise move to draft in a pair of youngsters to ease the action load. And for the opening act, the presence of the charismatic Yang Yang and Ai Lun as his security agent employees really works. With Chan and Tong injecting their trademark wit and humour into the fights, there’s a modern twist to the ’70s martial arts sensibilities that made Chan such a star.
Sadly, that balance is soon lost. The scale of the film increases to such a degree that what made the opening likeable disappears among a menagerie of amphibious cars and military-grade hoverboards. By the time the world’s largest quadcopter pops up to fire missiles at a fleet of warships, you’d be hard pressed to remember who it was you were rooting for in the first place, let alone what the missiles are aimed at.
Rather than copying the films of Chan’s past, Tong is more interested in competing with the likes of Wolf Warrior 2, the highly popular action epic that serves as China’s answer to a Michael Bay assault on the senses. Bay’s storytelling might not be much better, but at least he knows how to employ CGI, something Tong resolutely fails to do. The lions and hyenas are bad enough, but when a remote controlled robot pigeon arrives, the jig is well and truly up.
There is fun to be found in the action – and there’s a lot of action – but without a story, or indeed characters to care about, and a tone that flits between drama and comedy (as evidenced by an airborne agent firing a custard pie shotgun at a gold-plated car during the big showdown), what occurs is so odd that it just doesn’t work. If only Tong and Chan had focused their attention on the charismatic Yang Yang, perhaps he could have rescued the film along with the accountant’s wife.
- Director: Stanley Tong
- Starring: Jackie Chan, Yang Yang, Lun Ai
- Release date: January 8 (digital)