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Revolving around a retired soldier’s forced return to action, The Bodyguard could have been a cracking Chinese response to RED. Rather than parading his own massive presence and his trademark derring-do action choreography, Hong Kong action-comedy auteur Sammo Hung has instead relinquished the controls of his first directorial effort in nearly two decades to a screenplay drenched with cliched mobsters, maudlin melodrama and a plot with red herrings aplenty.
First and foremost a production geared for the mainland Chinese market — Jiang Jun’s script was a winner at the Beijing Film Festival’s project market — The Bodyguard is markedly devoid of the zany humor which defined Hung’s work as a filmmaker in his 1980s heyday, or the manic physicality which he has continued to offer to other people’s movies as an action choreographer.
While Hung’s moves could still be discerned by just the handful of fights scattered throughout the film — all of them unfolding in slow-motion and stuttering editing — fans expecting awe-inspiring melees or a climactic “reunion” of the Yuen Clan kung-fu stalwarts as promised on the publicity material will be disappointed. (Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah and Yuen Qiu do not share any screen time together in their cameos, with none of them raising even a finger in their very brief appearances.)
Trading under the much cuddlier title of My Special Agent Grandpa, The Bodyguard has served its domestic markets well, having taken $25.7 million in China during its opening weekend. It might perform less well beyond its national borders, however, among foreign niche audiences than more hard-hitting action fare like SPL2: A Time for Consequences.
A collage of black-and-white footage of Chinese soldiers in practice, on the march and in service, the film’s opening credits serves as an introduction to the background of Ding (Hung), once a member of the country’s elite military squad. While a younger version of his is shown in the sequence protecting Richard Nixon during his visit to China in 1973, Ding now leads a lonely life in a non-descript city in the Chinese-Russian borderlands, having cut himself off from his family after losing his granddaughter in a walkabout years ago.
Ding’s tragedy — outlined through a tonally jarring mawkish voiceover and child-like doodles — is brought about by the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. His anguished existence is lit up only by the frequent interventions of the adoring neighbor Park (Li Qinqin), and the mischievous antics of Cherry (Jacqueline Chan), a schoolgirl living next door with his hard-drinking gambler of a father.
The scumbag is played by Hong Kong megastar Andy Lau, who happens to be one of the film’s producers — so instead of the “guest appearance” he is slated to deliver, he instantly hijacks the proceedings for a good 20 minutes with a run-in with his debtors, a high-speed heist across the border in Vladivostok and a bombastic exit in which he entrusts Cherry to Ding’s care before succumbing to a heroic death.
This proves to be just one of the many digressions leading The Bodyguard astray. Rather than tracking Ding’s last bone-crushing hurrah as a killing machine awakened from his dementia-induced slumber, Jiang’s script delivers as much whimsy melodrama as possible in between those sporadic brawls with over-the-top Chinese and Russian baddies.
But the gentle giant’s trauma is never fully realized, and his exchanges with Park, Cherry or his other neighbors (including the Greek chorus of retirees played by Tsui Hark, Dean Shek and Karl Maka) fall flat in filling the blanks about Ding’s personality. Neither an action-fueled spectacle nor an emphatic story about the psychological struggle of a has-been grappling with a receding memory, The Bodyguard is perhaps best left forgotten as an odd, thundering dud in Hung’s long career as Hong Kong’s premier martial arts auteur.
Production companies: Irresistible Films in a co-presentation with Edko Films, Focus Films, Good Friends Entertainment, Edko (Beijing) Distribution, Shanghai Tencent Penguin Culture Entertainment, BDI Films
Cast: Sammo Hung, Andy Lau, Jacqueline Chan, Feng Jiayi, Li Qinqin
Director: Sammo Hung
Screenwriter: Jiang Jun
Producers: Bill Kong, Andy Lau, with Chan Pui-wah, Ivy Ho, Liu Erdong
Executive producers: Bill Kong, Andy Lau, Hugh Simon, TP Lim, Sun Zhonghuai, Hao Li
Director of photography: Ardy Lam
Production designer: Pater Wong
Costume designer: Boey Wong
Editor: Kwong Chi-leung
Music: Alan Wong, Janet Yung
International sales: Edko Films
Not rated, 99 minutes