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‘Vanguard’ falls behind

November 23, 2020
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I’ve been a fan of Jackie Chan for a quarter-century. Ever since his “Rumble in the Bronx” hit U.S. theaters back in 1995, I’ve been enamored of his brand of self-deprecating action cinema, combining martial arts master with outlandish stunts and over-the-top physical comedy. He and frequent collaborator Stanley Tong didn’t invent the slapstick kung fu sensibility, but I’d argue that they perfected it.

The latest collaboration between the two is “Vanguard,” and while it doesn’t ascend to the heights of their most successful team-ups, it has enough of the stuff you expect to make it an entertaining experience. It has the outlandish action you expect, whether you’re looking for gunfights, car chases or hand-to-hand combat. In terms of the story being told, well … the action’s pretty good.

That’s the thing, though – you’re not turning up for a Tong-Chan joint to experience the story. You want to see some hot kung fu action and wildly dangerous stunts, and in that respect, “Vanguard” delivers.

A high-end accountant named Qin (Jackson Lou) has found himself in some hot water, thanks to an illicit business relationship that soured. Qin ratted out his former partner to the authorities, which set in motion circumstances that led to the man – an arms dealer – getting killed in a military operation. Dead partner’s son Omar (Eyad Hourani) wants revenge served two ways – he wants Qin dead and he wants to get his hands on millions of now-missing dollars.

In order to save himself, Qin enlists the services of Vanguard, an elite private security firm run by Tang (Jackie Chan). The Vanguard team – specifically powerhouse duo Kaixuan (Ai Lun) and Lei (Yang Yang) – save Qin from a kidnap attempt, so Omar and his men turn their eyes to Qin’s animal activist daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan), currently in Africa.Tang takes his team – Kaixuan and Lei, along with Miya (Mu Qimiya) – to intervene and get to Fareeda before Omar’s men can.

After some bizarre shenanigans – a lengthy river chase involving rafts and jet-skis and waterfalls; a night spent in a weird quasi-treehouse – everyone makes their way to Dubai, where Vanguard and the local authorities team up to try and take out Omar’s operation before he can get his hands on the money to pay for the WMD he plans to use to exact revenge for his father’s death.

You know – the usual.

Like I said, you’re not here for the story. You’re in it for the action. And there’s definitely some of that. The river chase is precisely the kind of practical stuntwork that you hope to see from Jackie Chan stuff, including the man himself winding up in actual mortal peril – apparently, he almost drowned at one point; you get a glimpse of the moment during the obligatory “look at how insane we are” credits outtake montage. There’s an explosion-laden sequence in Dubai that goes on for a VERY long time, packed with armored vehicles and gunfire.

And of course, there’s the martial arts stuff, the meticulously-choreographed sequences that drop in the occasional goofball slapstick for good measure; Chan, despite his relatively advanced age, still has a knack for that shtick, though we don’t get as much of it as we used to. Ai Lun, Mu Oimiya and especially Yang Yang have moments, but despite their best efforts, it never quite clicks.

Stylistically, it’s an oddly made movie. I honestly can’t recall the last time I saw a movie with this many fades to black in between scenes; it’s so many that it had to be a conscious, deliberate choice and I can’t for the life of me figure out the motivation behind making it. And despite clearly shooting on location in some truly interesting spots – Zambia, India, Dubai, Dubai, Taiwan – there are stretches where you’d be forgiven for thinking took place on a generic soundstage somewhere.

That see-what-sticks attitude infects the rest of the film as well, as we’re never quite sure what the tone will be from moment to moment. Is it funny or serious? Romantic? Are we treating this realistically or cartoonishly? Throw in weird bee-drones and hoverboards and solid gold cars (don’t ask) and you’re left wondering what the hell did I even just watch?

Like many Chinese blockbusters, “Vanguard” tries to be all things to all people, shooting for four-quadrant appeal by going full kitchen sink. This movie defies genre not by seamlessly blending, but by jarringly overstuffing – forget scene by scene, you barely know what kind of movie you’re watching minute by minute.

In terms of the performances, I’d say folks did the best they could with what they had. Jackie Chan is top-billed, but he’s more of a secondary character – he’s on the poster to drive sales, if I had to guess. He can’t help but hold your attention – the dude’s a star for a reason – but it’s him, not the work. The rest of the cast, top to bottom, gives a quality effort. Unfortunately, the clunky dialogue, underdeveloped characterizations and generally lackluster story undermines that effort. Yang Yang might be a star someday, assuming he gets better scripts than this. Xu Ruohan is charming and Mu Oimiya is a legitimate badass. The villains are so generic that they might as well be identified by ethnicity and number.

Look – “Vanguard” is fun in its way. It’s a somewhat old-fashioned throwback to the kinds of movies we used to get from the Chan/Tong team. Unfortunately, times have changed … and they haven’t. Action aficionados may dig this, but the truth is that only hardcore Jackie Chan completists really need to bother. “Vanguard” lags behind.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 23 November 2020 11:48

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