'Vanguard' ('Jixianfeng'): Film Review

Vanguard
Courtesy of Intercontinental Film Distributors
'Wolf Warrior' ultra-lite.
11/20/2020

'Rumble in the Bronx' duo Jackie Chan and director Stanley Tong’s latest globetrotting actioner finally sees the light of day after a long pandemic delay.

If nothing else, director Stanley Tong and martial arts superstar Jackie Chan’s latest effort, Vanguard, proves the law of diminishing returns. Not too long ago a Chan film guaranteed an entertaining time at the movies and heaps of awe at what the human body could endure. Now? Not so much.

With the 66-year-old Chan handing off the heavy stunt lifting to younger, spryer actors, the fundamentally weak scripts of action gems like Police Story, Rumble in the Bronx or even Rush Hour become glaringly obvious — and difficult to tolerate without Chan’s brand of kung fu wizardry to distract. Nonetheless Gravitas is banking on Chan to fill the November action void left by No Time to Die’s delay. Vanguard may attract the ultra-bored and/or stir crazy and devoted Chan fans, but those expecting to see the blazing acrobatics of his earlier work will be intensely disappointed.

Originally set for a January Lunar New Year release in Hong Kong and China, Vanguard was among the earliest films postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the situation improving in Asia, the film finally hit screens in China over the country’s early October Golden Week holiday, and shortly thereafter in Chan’s ostensible home market in Hong Kong.

Chan has become persona non grata there for his anti-protest, pro-security law stance, and so Vanguard scraped together a paltry $63,000 in its opening weekend (compared to Tenet’s $325,000 on opening day). It fared little better in China. With the likes of Wu Jing (Wolf Warrior) and Iko Uwais (The Raid) already eclipsing Chan’s star, Vanguard’s $37 million was the lowest haul among holiday releases, and continued Chan’s downward box office spiral in the key mainland market. In 2017 The Foreigner pulled in a total of $75 million; later that year Bleeding Steel earned $45 million, though its performance was an improvement over the execrable Sino-Russian The Mystery of Dragon Seal (co-starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) in 2019, which topped out at $2.7 million.

The tepid reception in China comes despite Chan and Tong’s cringe-worthy efforts to appeal to its audiences. Vanguard has some of the cinema’s most shameless pandering to date, and really shows Iron Man 3 how it’s done.

The story such as it is, begins in London’s Chinatown, where rich dude Qin Guoli (Taiwanese actor Jackson Lou) is kidnapped by random bad guy Broto (Brahim Chab, a regular Chan stunt player) and his crew. Evidently Qin sold out Broto’s boss’s brother to some kind of law enforcement and rich Middle Eastern — but also felonious — dude Omar (Eyad Hourani) wants revenge for his brother’s death by drone strike. Qin, however, is protected by Blackwater-type VIP security service Vanguard, headed up by Tang Huanting (Chan), who dispatches two nearby agents to foil the kidnapping. Lei Zhenyu (TV star Yang Yang) and Zhang Kaixuan (Ai Lun, of popular comedy troupe Mahua FunAge) are great friends and nice to children, so you know one of them has a target on his back. They get backup from Miya (yoga instructor-turned actor Mu Qimiya) and escape Broto’s clutches.

Naturally, Qin has a daughter, Fareeda (newcomer Xu Ruohan), doing conservation work in Africa (just "Africa" — because it’s all one place), who becomes a pawn in Qin and Omar’s spat, and so Vanguard is off to get her before the baddies do. Somehow this comes to a head in Dubai, and involves several ostentatious solid gold sports cars chasing each other through the streets, and an attempted attack on an American aircraft carrier, which Vanguard also foils.

Left to its own silly, ultra-’80s devices, Vanguard isn’t a total disaster, and it’s a smidge better than its trailer suggests. The goofiness of the entire ordeal is to be expected. After all, what’s a Chan film without gangs called the Brotherhood of Vengeance or the Arctic Wolves? Or gadgetry that puts both James Bond and Ridley Scott sci-fi to shame, like Vanguard agent Condor’s (Zhu Zhengting of boyband NEXT) flying hoverboard thingamajig. Fareeda hilariously frolicking with lions for Instagram is almost worth the price of admission alone.

But then the dialogue registers, right alongside elements pilfered from better films: the fortress shoot-out is lifted from John Wick: Chapter 3, a building-to-building car chase is pure Furious 7 and there’s even a Michael Bay-ready slo-mo team shot. In a blatant stab at demonstrating that they, too, can exert soft power, screenwriter Tong and Chan have concocted lines so grimly obvious in their pandering that it’s embarrassing, especially in the current political climate. The jewels: Zhenyu telling Broto’s henchman they’ll never prevail because “You’ve learned our tongue, but not our ethics,” followed closely by Fareeda explaining how European demand for a pretty bird nearly drove it to extinction. Best of all is Kaixuan being charmed by his toddler’s declaration of his superhero toy: “Captain China is way better than Captain America!” The less said about the blackface the better.

On a technical level (there are no performances, just poses), Vanguard is pedestrian at best, with a great deal of noticeable CGI, and doesn't really exploit its impressive locations in Zambia, India and Dubai among others. Tong, Han Guanhua and the JC Stunt Team chip in with adequate, if unremarkable, stunt choreography.

Production company: Shanghai Lix Entertainment
U.S. distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Jackie Chan, Yang Yang, Ai Lun, Mu Qimiya, Xu Ruohan, Jackson Lou, Zhu Zhengting
Director: Stanley Tong
Screenwriter: Stanley Tong
Producer: Stanley Tong, Barbie Tung
Executive producer: Stanley Tong, Jiao Hongfen, Edward Cheng, Zhang Yong, Jwanwat Ahriyavraromp, Deng Junming
Director of photography: Chris Lee
Production designer: James Cheung
Costume designer: Miriam Chen, Connie Leung
Editor: Yau Chi-wai
Music: Nathan Wang
Casting: Shanna Kay Gonzales, Venetia Suchdev
World sales: China Film Co.

In Putonghua, English
No rating, 107 minutes