Director: Teddy Chen
Writer: James Yuen, Chun Tin Nam
Cast: Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Nicholas Tse, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Hu Jun, Wang Bo Chieh, Fan Bing Bing, Eric Tsang, Simon Yam, Wang Xue Qi, Zhou Yun, Mengke Bateer, Che Kim Fai, Jacky Chung, Cung Le, Li Yu Chun, Gary Mak Wing Lun, Philip Ng, Michelle Reis, John Sham, Dennis To
Running Time: 139 min.
Donnie Yen continues his quest to remind global audiences that Hong Kong is number one when it comes to action with 2009’s historical epic “Bodyguards & Assassins.” Though fans should probably be aware that Donnie only has a supporting role in the film and he didn’t choreograph the fight scenes himself. This may explain why the action doesn’t quite live up to the standards of “Ip Man” or “Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.” Regardless, this is definitely a film that fans of Hong Kong cinema should seek out.
“Bodyguards & Assassins” is a labor of love from director Teddy Chan (“Purple Storm,” “The Accidental Spy”) that has seen a long road to completion. The film spent nearly a decade in development and had to endure the SARS crisis. It cost around 23 million US dollars to make and involved the no doubt expensive construction of sets replicating Hong Kong harbor circa 1906. These sets were later re-purposed and used by Donnie Yen in “Legend of the Fist.” Considering its time spent in development hell, it’s a triumph that “Bodyguards & Assassins” made it to the big screen at all and, not just that, went on to win Best Film at the 2009 Hong Kong Film Awards.
If you’ve seen Takashi Miike’s 2010 samurai epic “13 Assassins,” you’ll find that “Bodyguards & Assassins” has a similar story structure. Both films fly in the face of traditional action movies where three acts allow for fight scenes at different intervals. “Bodyguards & Assassins” spends an hour or so setting up its plot and establishing the characters, and then delivers at least 40 minutes of non-stop action. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if more genre films followed this template. It allows enough time for character development so that when the action arrives the audience actually cares about who’s involved and what’s at stake. And for the die-hard action junkies, it’s nearly an hour of uninterrupted combat once things do kick into gear.
“Bodyguards & Assassins” takes place in 1906, just a few days before the arrival of real-life political revolutionary Dr. Sun Chen into Hong Kong. If Dr. Sun can meet with representatives of the Chinese territories in Hong Kong, he will be able to spark a revolution to overthrow the corrupt Qing Dynasty. Of course, the Empress won’t stand for this and dispatches numerous assassins to end Sun’s life. The film then follows the plight of those charged with keeping Dr. Sun out of harm’s way during his brief time in Hong Kong.
The cast is star-studded and that’s putting it mildly. Wang Xueqi (“Warriors of Heaven and Earth”) is the closest the film has to a main character but also look for Donnie Yen, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Nicholas Tse, Leon Lai, Fan Bing-Bing, Eric Tsang, and Simon Yam. Whew. I don’t think I’ve seen a cast this huge since the “Infernal Affairs” trilogy wrapped up. I was really impressed with Wang Xuegi’s performance; he’s the audience’s anchor during the first hour of the movie but unfortunately he’s not given much to do once the action starts.
Honestly, one of the best performances here is from Nicholas Tse. I know Nicholas used to get a lot of grief for being a pretty-boy pop star turned actor (and crashing his car in the news didn’t help) but I think this is a standout role in his career. His character has an intense, brotherly relationship with Wang Xuegi’s son, played by Wang Bo-Chieh. This leads to a lot of emotional scenes during the climax of the film since Wang Bo-Chieh serves as Dr. Sun’s decoy for the assassins. I have to say Tse’s onscreen anguish seemed genuine, even if it was over the top.
Great actors giving great performances in a Hong Kong action-drama with slick production values and numerous martial arts battles. What’s not to like? Well, the action is not quite up to par for a Hong Kong film. The fight scenes are over-reliant on wire-work and Teddy Chan isn’t shy about it as characters make impossible “Matrix” leaps through the air. Some action sequences are plagued by frantic camerawork and rapid editing, which doesn’t help the audience follow the action at all. The drama of a climatic battle between Leon Lai and about fifty assassins is undercut by poor camera angles and frequent cutting to other actors observing the fight. The use of computer-generated blood, blades, and arrows didn’t exactly sell me on the reality of the film either.
That said, the chase and fight scene between Donnie Yen and MMA fighter Cung Le is worth the price of admission alone. In our first glimpse of Cung Le, we see him from afar as he tears down a busy public street like a bull: people, objects, animals, all sent flying as they get caught in his warpath. It’s a fantastic introduction to the character that makes him see larger than life. And that jump kick he lands on Donnie – damn! I don’t think I’ve ever feared for Donnie’s life before. Again, I just wish their battle wasn’t so reliant on wirework.
I went into “Bodyguards & Assassins” expecting to be blown away by the action. Instead, I found myself more invested in the characters and their heroic mission. For a Chinese movie, there is a surprising amount of talk about “democracy” and the opening of the film even gets away with quoting Abraham Lincoln. Of course, I’m sure the word “democracy” means something a lot different to the Chinese. Still, this movie seems primed to appeal to Western audiences despite the usual jabs at British colonization, so it’s a shame that we aren’t seeing its release until 2 years later.
If you’re a fan of Hong Kong cinema, be sure to catch “Bodyguards & Assassins.” The martial arts may not be up to Donnie Yen’s usual measure of quality but the characters and their struggle prove to be emotionally absorbing, which is more than you can say for the average action movie.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 8/10