Vanguard

China (2020) Dir. Stanley Tong

Q: What do rock legends The Who, wrestlers Terry Funk and Atsushi Onita, and Jackie Chan have in common?

A: They have all reneged on promises to retire from their chose occupations. Although to be fair to Chan, he never said he would retire from acting, just kung fu and action films. This latest collaboration with writer-director Stanley Tong clearly suggests otherwise.

London based Chinese accountant Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou) is being targeted by a group of mercenaries named the Arctic Wolves on behalf of Middle Eastern Prince Omar (Eyad Hourani). Qin worked for Omar’s father Maasym but when he discovered the money he made was being used to fund the terrorist activities of Maasaym’s group Brotherhood of Vengeance, Qin reported him to the police.

Massaym was killed during a military operation and only Qin knows where his fortune is hidden, hence Omar tying to get him. Fortunately, international security group Vanguard are on hand to protect Qin, foiling a kidnap attempt. However, Qin’s daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan) is Omar’s next target to make Qin talk, leading to a cross-continent chase to keep her safe.

It seems Chan and Tong feel like they are onto a winning formula with the global action adventure flick that has defined the last few films they’ve made together, for better or for worse. Popular opinion suggests the latter, and as much as I love Jackie Chan, his most recent output hasn’t been that inspiring. Sure, he can still go despite being north of 60, but it doesn’t mean he should but I guess the spark is still there for him.

That said, Jackie lets his younger co-stars do most of the fighting in Vanguard, his role being the group’s chief Tang Huanting, but instead of assuming a figurehead role, he still partakes in the crazy stunt filled action. It does afford some cute self-referential jokes at Chan’s expense however, like the scene where he is about to leap off a shopping mall balcony (a’la Police Story) until someone points out the staircase a few feet away!

You can probably tell from the plot synopsis that the story is pretty much a functional sketch around which to base the fights and action sequences, and in that regard we are not disappointed. But this biased action-to-story ratio shows laziness in Tong’s writing, meaning we have little investment in the plight of the protagonists and the campaign of the villains.

Unfortunately, I have to bore you once again with the tired complaint of the lack of HOH subtitles as 70% of the dialogue is in English, spoken by non-English actors, so I have no clue what the details of the story are. Thankfully, with the plot being so flimsy I was only missing the conversations, of which only a handful seemed relative to the story, and the interim parts spoken in Mandarin often filled in the blanks.

Anyway, Qin is saved during a Chinese New Year in London because they had to get some nationalist rhetoric into the film and this was a convenient enough way to achieve that. The initial rescue serves to introduce us to Vanguard members Zhang Kaixuan (Ai Lun) and the slightly younger Lei Zhenyu (Yang Yang), in what may have been a passing of the torch moment by Chan given the slapstick elements incorporated into their fights.

Qin’s daughter Fareeda is a wildlife preservation activist currently working in Africa, and whilst Qin could pin point his daughter‘s location, somehow the Wolves were able to track her down too. Round two sees the fights take place in the jungle and on the river, the latter proving quite the spectacle as the fists fly on rubber dinghies and jet skis as they head towards the vertiginous edge a waterfall.

Not so impressive where the CGI lions and hyenas. I get it would be cruel and maybe impractical to use real animals but as good as they look when stationary, the illusion is ruined once they move. Also, the hi-tech tree house Fareeda and Zhenyu hide in is hokey too, but probably fun to play on with its elevator seat. Oh and if you haven’t guessed, this pairing amounts to the obligatory romance subplot; at least it wasn’t Jackie with a young girl as usual.

Speaking of girls, vanguard has one female frontline member, the kick ass Mi Ya (Miya Muqi). She fights like demon, drives like a beast, and is handy with a gun too, so of course when they need to lay a honey trap, they stick in her in a bikini and have her pose as a model. I’m not complaining per se but as Mi Ya rightly points out, she is one of the boys, and is more entertaining when busting heads.

Once we head into the final stretch in Dubai, having already been to London, Africa and the Middle East, the climactic showdown involving a chase where the vehicles are made of SOLID GOLD (!!), Omar suddenly remembers it was the US military who killed his father and wants revenge. Luckily for the self-appointed world’s police, Vanguard is there to lend a hand and save the day. Ouch indeed!

Being unable to understand the English-speaking villains meant I couldn’t get a reading on them but there didn’t seem much to differentiate them from the usual generic Jackie Chan foe of late. I wonder if their Arab heritage was purely to facilitate the globetrotting undertaken by cast and crew – i.e. three working holidays in one – despite the lumps and bumps they suffered for their art.  

Jackie Chan being synonymous with a certain style of cinema means he has a legacy to call his own, even if it applies to mindless popcorn fare like Vanguard, with its copious amount of sizzle but very little steak. You may know what you are getting from him but these days, the laws of diminishing returns means it sadly isn’t as exciting a prospect as it once was.