Sammo Hung’s first film as a director in nearly 20 years (since 1997’s Once Upon a Time in China and America), The Bodyguard came with a sense of expectation that was compounded by its starry cast of legendary old-timers (Karl Maka, Dean Shek, most of the Seven Little Fortunes) and A-listers both mature (Andy Lau, Tsui Hark, Hu Jun) and on the rise (Eddie Peng, William Feng), as well as a script (by Jiang Jun) that had earned some acclaim at the 3rd Beijing International Film Festival. Sammo Hung is Ding, a retired elite bodyguard who lives alone in his hometown near the Russian border, wracked with guilt after his granddaughter disappeared when he was supposed to watch over her. Dementia is creeping in on him, and despite the care of his lovestruck landlady (Li Qinqin), his only joy in this world is the friendship of his young neighbor Cherry (Chen Pei Yan), who often stays at his house to avoid her father Li (Andy Lau), a gambling addict. When Li goes on the run with a bag of jewels that he stole from the Russian mob to repay his debt to local gangster Choi (Jack Feng), Ding has to break out of his stupor to protect Cherry, who is about to become collateral damage as henchmen both Chinese and Russian hunt down her father.
It must be noted that The Bodyguard (which is Mainland China goes by the fluffier My Beloved Bodyguard) has had one of the most deceitful marketing campaigns in recent memory. Literally dozens of posters (and half a dozen trailers) sold the film as a star-studded action film, showing the whole cast gun in hand and making it look like they all had significant roles. In reality however, Sammo Hung and Andy Lau are the only two stars with actual roles, while the rest of the name actors get mostly flavorless cameos, in what is mainly a low-key drama with only one action scene of note. Why show good old Yuen Wah in a martial arts stance on the poster, if he’s only to appear for mere seconds, as a postman? Why showcase a gun-toting Yuen Biao in the marketing, if he’s only to have a few seconds of inconsequential screen-time and dialogue near the end? Having Tsui Hark, Karl Maka (in his first film in 16 years) and Dean Shek (first film in 26 years!) as a trio of old coots that just sit on a bench all day is a delightful idea, but couldn’t they get a few funny or interesting lines instead of insipid banter? And beyond the lack of flavor and deceitful marketing of these cameos, their mere presence in what is essentially a dour drama is simply distracting.
For indeed action is quite sparse. Apart from a quick skirmish where Ding defends his young friends against goons that have invaded his home, and a perfunctory car chase, the bulk of the fighting comes in a protracted brawl at a gambling den near the end, where Ding fends of a dozen Chinese henchmen before going up against three massive Russians. It’s actually a very interesting fight scene that defies the expectations set by Sammo Hung’s vast and illustrious catalogue in action directing. Instead of the fluid camerawork and unobtrusive editing that he often favors, this fight goes for a staggered rhythm, tight – but perfectly readable – cutting, and a discreet blurring effect that gets more and more marked as the scuffle goes on. Far from being a way to disguise action incompetence (this is Sammo Hung we’re talking about), these stylistic choices perfectly express the character’s worsening dementia at this point in the story: Hung executes the moves almost mechanically and with a look in his eyes that is alternatively lost and angry, stripping Ding’s moves down to pure muscle memory (his extensive fight training is shown in the main titles and repeatedly mentioned throughout the film) compensating for faltering cognition and perception. It’s actually quite a tour-de-force of action directing coupled with acting.
But this impressive ‘cognitive’ action scene would have had much more emotional weight, had the rest of the film been less uneven. The central bond between Ding and Cherry is perfunctorily introduced, clumsily explained through voice-over, and reduced to a series of vignettes of the old man and the little girl fishing or eating ice-cream. It’s touching because it’s a cute little girl (a endearing but superficial turn by Chen Pei Yan, though she’s not helped by the writing) and an kind old man, but it never goes beyond that superficial set-up. Andy Lau, here to return a favor, does the bare minimum with an underwritten character that gets a lazily brought about redemption and seems to be in another film, as for 20 minutes the focus shifts to his attempt to steal a bag of jewels in Russia to repay his debt to Jack Feng’s one-note, grimacing gangster. Subplots come and go, disparate rather than cohesive, most of them simply there to shoehorn a cameo – some of them even come post-credits, as if having found nowhere to include them the filmmakers thought “let’s just chuck them at the end”. Thus Song Jia, as the girlfriend of Andy Lau’s character, appears two minutes into the end credits, in a scene that doesn’t add or set up anything. Head-scratching to say the least.
There are also odd tonal shifts that are reminiscent of Sammo Hung’s eighties output (though much less marked), but don’t come with the energy that made them work three decades ago. After an interesting main titles sequence with archive footage of Chinese military training over which Sammo sings Peking Opera, we’re explained the gist of Ding’s story by a kiddy voice-over and an animated child’s drawing. Which doesn’t mean the film won’t have scenes of people being murdered with cloth-hanger or getting their Achilles’ tendon slashed.
Still, though the writing is all over the place, the film is kept afloat by Sammo Hung’s presence in front of the camera. He’s always been a much better dramatic actor than given credit for, with eyes that speak volumes and an understated warmth that can be quite poignant; the film’s only moving moments come when he reminisces about the traumatic loss of his granddaughter. Despite that one scene where he single-handedly beats up dozens of henchmen it’s truly a vanity-free role and he’s never appeared more vulnerable, as a man who’s forgetting everything, except guilt. And though placating Chinese censors means that villainous loose ends are tied up in entirely forced ways – with Eddie Peng literally embodying the SARFT as he come out of nowhere to make sure every villain gets his due – the ending has an interestingly bittersweet feel to it. The film’s healthy box-office performance in China means Sammo Hung the director is probably back to stay. Let us, then, chalk up The Bodyguard‘s inconsistencies to a long-dormant director limbering up before coming back in full force. In turn, you’re free to chalk up that preceding sentence to our Sammo-sized Sammo bias.
Long Story Short: The Bodyguard is an odd misfire, a patchy and often clumsy drama sprinkled with inspired moments and kept afloat by Sammo Hung’s poignant presence. **1/2