It’s sad that Jackie Chan films have been scarce in America over the last decade. Though he does a good deal of voice work for animation, the Rush Hour star’s acrobatic martial art mastery and quick wit have been missed.
Despite all the terrific fight scenes and stunts in Vanguard, we get a sense of the decay of the Hong Kong action movie under the Beijing regime. China Film Group, which produced Vanguard, has an old-school Communist golden bas relief of sickle-wielding proletariats for its logo. And there are touches of propaganda — like the scene where a child receives a Funko-like “Captain China” figure as a birthday present. (“He’s more mighty than Captain America!” says the kid.) Captain China is an actual comic book hero; there was talk of a Captain China film trilogy in 2016 with the Russo Brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, et al) attached as consultants. Vanguard is a model of where mainstream Chinese cinema is going, closer to the dynamics of the MCU than to the martial arts frenzy that made Hong Kong cinema world famous in the 1990s.
Zhang Kaixuan (Lun Ai) and Lei (Yang Yang) are young, good-looking Damon and Pythias-type comrades. They work for the international private security firm Vanguard. During the Chinese New Year festivities in London, they foil a kidnapping attempt on Qin (Jackson Lou), a businessman with a shady past. Qin has been targeted by an Arab terrorist group variously referred to as “the Brotherhood of Vengeance” and “The Arctic Wolves.” One may be a subset of the other, but this is a breathless film and it was hard to keep up. Whatever they’re called, the group’s mastermind is the muscly Broto (Brahim Chab).
When the thugs are thwarted in their attempt to snatch Qin, they head to Africa to capture the businessman’s beautiful daughter Fareeda (Ruohan Xu), with Vanguard agents on their trail. She’s been out in the veldt protecting the animals from poachers. Fareeda has a mated pair of CG lions on her side. We can tell she’s attuned to nature when she calls Lei’s attention to some birds of paradise billing and cooing; she describes “their search for happiness and freedom.”
Both Kei and Fareeda are captured and hauled to the failed state of Jiadebala, where the Brotherhood of Vengeance and/or Arctic Wolves holds sway. Vanguard’s troops are in pursuit, joining forces with the Dubai SWAT team to prevent the use of a deadly weapon codenamed “Flash Mob.” The futuristic flying device has a very hard, very American target in its crosshairs.
With slo-mo Michael Bay shots of the rent-a-soldiers walking to their helicopters — and with the kind of CG that, per Fast and Furious movies, has luxury sports cars first standing up on their hind legs like the Royal Lipizzaners horses — one has to look closely to see what differentiates Vanguard from American actioners. At the end of the last century, American movie heroes grew ever more whiskery and vengeance-thirsty. In Hong Kong, the smooth Jackie Chan’s lesson to the world was that amiable pacifism and respect was the best policy… until it was inarguably time for the fight. Vanguard’s mediocre script references this, when scolding a villain who has some command of Mandarin: “You’ve learned our tongue, but not our ethics!”
The difference of styles between East and West is apparent in a fight scene in a Chinese restaurant’s kitchen. Kaixuan, trying to stop a killer henchman from knifing him, thrusts the thug’s hand into the deep fat fryer: said thug stumbles backwards and collapses ass-first into a conveniently-placed wok full of boiling water. Rather than gloating over his opponent’s bad luck, Kaixuan makes a horrified face. An extreme kind of slapstick comedy is always trying to break out of this actioner.
This is Chan’s seventh film with Vanguard director Stanley Tong. He oversaw some of Chan’s best adventures in the 1990s, including Rumble in the Bronx and the dazzling 1992 film, Police Story: Supercop. In 1987’s Project A, Part 2, Chan was cornered in a street market. He grabbed and chomped on a mouthful of chiles to spit in the face of an assailant. It worked but it backfired, with Chan running around with his tongue on fire, yelping for water. Some might call this an example of the Taoist lesson that “it is the nature of a weapon to turn back upon its user.” In Vanguard, an agent squashes some red peppers in his hands to slap in a thug’s eyes. Nice move, but there’s not enough blowback.
At its best, Vanguard is a dim echo of Hong Kong’s best days. But there are diversions: the aforementioned fight scene in the restaurant’s kitchen with butcher knives clanging and fire extinguishers flying — and a bit of durian fu; that heavy smelly fruit has spikes on its rind, sharp as a medieval mace.
Shot in the arm with an elephant tranquilizer gun, Lei pulls out the dart and starts stabbing an opponent with it, keeling over from the drug even as he fights. For once, there’s a well-turned water chase sequence, with an amphibious car pursued by jet-skis, down a whitewater rapid and right to the brink of a waterfall.
In one rescue, Kaixuan extracts Lei from a three-way death trap of bouncing-betty mines, a locked explosive vest and some plastique time bombs stashed near by, just to make sure the job is done right. Robot pigeons and bee drones — that is, drones shaped like drones — spy on the mud brick urban battlefield at Jiadebala. And, in the finale, Tong’s camera hovers about the ruinously expensive Vegas-style spectacle of the Dubai Mall; it’s invaded by a fleet of speeding solid gold cars, including a Hummer with a cowcatcher.
Little holds this mayhem together except for Chan… and well, he’s in here somewhere. Like many a man his age, Chan goes where he’s took. Chan’s Tang is deskbound for the first quarter, sitting around in an expensive-looking three piece suit until he gets into the field. He certainly gets his licks in: in Africa, he immobilizes a henchman in a leg hold, right before realizing an angry lion is staring both of them down.
My favorite move, reminiscent of the days when Chan was the one-man army defending Hong Kong, had Chan swiping the agal headband off the head of a bystanding Arab. He whipped it to snare a gunman’s arm, and pulled it down so fast that the chump put a bullet in himself, right below the belt. ”Why are you shooting yourself?” Chan asks, in honor of The Simpsons’ Nelson Muntz, before returning the agal to its owner with a polite salaam.
Vanguard opens this Friday at the Kabuki, the AMC Emeryville, and at the Northgate in San Rafael.