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Worth A Look: 12.5%
Average: 12.5%
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Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 2 user ratings

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Bodyguards and Assassins
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jay Seaver

"You can never have enough of either."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: Before "Bodyguards and Assassins", the festival presented "Development Hell", a documentary not about the making of this film, but of the collapse of multiple attempts to shoot it under multiple titles over decades. Unlike many cursed productions, this one made it to screens in impressive fashion, with an all-star cast and extraordinary production values, at least providing the filmmakers with a happy ending.

In 1906, the Qing Dynasty still ruled China. Would-be revolutionaries were routinely assassinated, and the man who would later become known as the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, lived in exile in Japan. But in October, he would come to Hong Kong ot meet with other revolutionaries, a golden opportunity for Mainland assassins. Empress Cixi sends her top general, Yan Xiao-guo (Jun Hu), to spearhead the attempt. Security is meant to be handled by former general Fang Tian (Simon Yam), but Yan strikes first, leaving matters in the hands of a ragtag group: Li Yu-tang (Wang Xueqi), a businessman who had been satisfied to merely donate money to the cause; Chen Xiao-bai (Tony Leung Ka-fai), who edits the newspaper Li owns and also tutors Li's son Chung-guang (Wang Bo-Chieh); A-si(Nicholas Tse), Li's rickshaw boy; "Master Liu" (Leon Lai), a once-proud man reduced to vagrancy; Fang Hong (Li Yuchun), General Fang's 16-year-old daughter; and "Stinky Tofu" (Mengke Bateer), a giant of a street vendor who was once a Shaolin monk. The English have told the police to stay back, but one corrupt cop, Sum Chang-yan (Donnie Yen) is spying for Yan, less for ideology than because he still carries a torch for Li's young wife (Fan Bingbing).

Bodyguards and Assassins is a lot of movie; it runs 139 minutes and in that time gives all of its characters time to define themselves to the audience. They don't necessarily grown and change very much over the course of the film - the bulk of the action takes place over a period of less than a week - but director Teddy Chan, the editors, and the four credited writers do an excellent job of balancing the various characters. We learn just enough about each to grow fond of or interested in each one, but we're not smothered in unnecessary soap that unduly distracts us from or delays the action we paid to see.

The cast does their job well, too. It's an ensemble cast, and a solid one, but a few people stand out. The star of the film turns out to be Wang Xueqi; his character of Li Yu-tang is the one most likely to touch every character thread during the first half. Younger men will take over when the gauntlet begins, but Wang gets us there by playing Yu-tang with a fairly light touch; he's able to be a softie in many scenes but still come off as a strict parent to Chung-guang or display a keen intellect when thrust into a leadership role. Jun Hu is a scarred villain who makes up for the much larger number of heroic characters with how well he projects malice and power. Yan can be a yeller at times, but it's mostly done with body language; this is a guy who knows that he's got an army behind him. Li Yuchun does well at making Fang Hong hardened but not old beyond her years. Donnie Yen does a fine job of reminding us that even when not punching and kicking people, he's a pretty capable actor.

But he will get a chance to punch and kick people. The film holds back on the action in the first half, with only one or two quick bits to nudge the story where it needs to go, but gives us an ominous countdown to Sun Yat-sen's arrival and occasional glimpses at what the ersatz bodyguards are doing to prepare. Then zero day arrives, and the movie throws all of the martial arts sequences that normally would have been spread throughout the movie at the audience one after another, in rapid enough succession that it almost feels like one big, hour-long set piece. Practically everyone in the cast gets a chance to shine with sequences built to their strengths. Of course, folks who recognize Mengke Bateer from the NBA may be amused that his strength often means throwing basketball-sized gourds at Qing soldiers, but that's part of what makes it fun: For all the solemnity of the cut-aways to Sun Yat-sen and moments spent grieving when heroes fall (which a number do), it's very easy to get caught up in the action and enjoy it as the impressive displays of skill and choreography that they are. The action is just bigger-than-life enough to match be fun but not so absurd to make light of the tragedy or the important events transpiring in the meeting of the rebel leaders.

Fictitious events, admittedly; though Sun Yat-sen is a real historical figure, he is not known to have visited Hong Kong in October of 1906. Several bodyguards did die protecting him from assassination at other places, but setting the film in Hong Kong is more appealing as a display of patriotism than depicting assassination attempts in London and San Francisco. It also gives the producers the chance to create what could be argued as another star of the movie, an enormous set depicting over a dozen block's worth of the Hong Kong of a century ago. It's detailed, beautiful, and when the chase begins, allows us to feel like the heroes are both going a long distance and fighting for every inch.

"Bodyguards & Assassins" isn't a subtle movie - few of its subplots are anything close to complex, and it absolutely wears its patriotic heart on its sleeve. It is almost unfailingly grand rather than overblown, and an hour of almost continuous quality martial arts action more than counters an excessively earnest history lesson.

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originally posted: 06/30/10 14:40:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/07/12 matthew T. Dalldorf Not bad, I've seen better 3 stars
5/27/10 Cultlabs Epic history and martial arts that combines drama upfront with fight action 4 stars
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  N/A (MA)

Directed by
  Teddy Chan

Written by
  Tin Nam Chun
  Junli Guo
  Bing Wu
  James Yuen

  Donnie Yen
  Leon Lai
  Xueqi Wang
  Tony Leung Ka Fai
  Nicholas Tse
  Jun Hu
  Yuchun Li
  Eric Tsang
  Simon Yam
  Bingbing Fan

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