Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/11/20 02:31:30

"There's worse late-period Jackie Chan, but also much better."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

"Vanguard" isn't the worst movie in Jackie Chan's lackluster late career, and it's not even particularly unique in how it's disappointing: As with many of his recent movies, the kung fu clown is at war with the elder statesman; the mainland production seemingly aims to use Chan's international stardom to make a film that plays globally while also being the sort of actively pro-China film that makes the state film board happy; and even though it would be completely unreasonable to ask Chan to carry an action movie the way he used to after 45-plus years of death-defying stunts and hard hits, he's proven tricky to fit into an ensemble as anything other than a mentor. That the movie is not good in so many other ways is, of course, not a help.

Reflecting the film's original, pre-Covid release date, it opens amid a Lunar New Year celebration in London, with Lei Zhenyu (Yang Yang) joining his friend Zhang Kaixuan (Allen Ai Lun) and their family. Not far away, banker Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou Hsueh-Hsien) and wife Meiwei are kidnapped by middle-eastern terrorists led by Broto (Brahim Chab), but since Qin has hired the Vanguard security company, CEO Tang Huatin (Chan) is able to dispatch Lei, Kaixuan, and eventually driver Mi Ya (Mu Qimiya) to rescue them. Broto escapes, though, and though the Vanguard team anticipates that Broto and his boss Omar (Eyad Hourani) will attempt to get what they want from Qin by kidnapping his daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan), they arrive at the wildlife activist's African campsite only minutes before Broto and his "Arctic Wolves".

Old Jackie Chan movies were often clumsy in many respects, barely enough to tie the fight scenes together, and that worked not just because those fights were extraordinary, with any one of the three or four set-pieces with the price of a ticket on its own, but because the whole film held together in straight-ahead, functional style. It doesn't really work quite so well when one can see that there's enough money being spent on locations and effects that some more time could have been spent on the script, or getting a really good take; it also doesn't help that the action isn't the same sort of jaw-dropping hand-to-hand masterpieces. I suspect this movie manages to be awkward and stilted in three languages, and if not exactly racist, so unconcerned with how it plays outside China to come off as tone-deaf. The plot is just whatever is convenient at the moment, no matter how much nonsense it is. It moves quickly enough that it's not quite boring, but it's generic.

The Chinese cast is generally a cut above that; in addition to the generally-reliable Chan - who makes Tang being a different guy when he's wearing a suit in the office versus being in the field work - the rest of the Vanguard team has, at the very least, the makings of a good television ensemble. None of them really have much to do outside action, but Yang Yang and Ai Lun are likable and pleasant while still feeling like capable professionals, Mu Qimiya plays off them as the scowling no-nonsense driver (the character's job/demeanor/costume suggests a reboot of The Transporter that I'd watch), and Xu Ruohan bounces nicely off Yang as the young "client". They aren't entirely on Chan's wavelength, but they're fine.

And while the action is a bit rough when the visual effects and editing crew gets asked to do too much, director Stanley Tong and the JC Stunt Team still know what they're doing. Jackie may not be as spry as he once was, but the younger cast members like Yang and Mu, as well as the stunt people, do fine, if less comically inspired work. The opening gambit is a nice throwback that makes use of the environment and keeps the amount of things going on manageable even as it moves around, something missing from the big central piece which is a bunch of people in desert camo and tactical gear aided by super-tech. There's also a nice Indiana Jones-style car chase/fist fight, except with boats, and I can't exactly hate a movie with one of those.

A few good bits and a few more fun ideas that don't quite become good bits are more than a fair number of action movies have, and probably would have been enough in Chan's Hong Kong days, but the sloppy stuff in between doesn't work with this movie's larger scale. Or, for that matter, with Chan's recent talk about doing something more ambitious than nearly getting himself killed for other people's entertainment.

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