What a strange movie director Teddy Chan’s ‘Bodyguards and Assassins’ turned out to be. A fictionalized tale based around one of the many Chinese revolutions, this one centered in Hong Kong around the turn of the century, and is basically two separate movies rolled into one. The first movie is filled with melodrama, family drama, teen angst, political speeches followed by more melodrama with the second half turning into a highly stylized version of Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Gauntlet’. I don’t know if these two disparate approaches within the same film actually works, but regardless, it’s still a movie I’m glad I had the pleasure of watching.
As our film opens, a professor is on the steps of a building lecturing his students about the China he hopes to see. He informs them that he might not live to see to see this China but his students just may. Never have truer words been spoken.
Fast forward a few years where some rebels have quietly built up steam to mount a revolution against the oppressive Manchu Qing Dynasty and the equally oppressive British rule of Hong Kong. To light the match of this revolution a key element is necessary and that would be the reemergence of one Dr. Sun, exiled many years ago for his opposing views but now coming back to Hong Kong to unite the factions and start the bloody wheels of change a rolling. Rest assured that the Queen is well aware of his arrival and she has dispatched her lethal team of assassins to make sure that Dr. Sun will not make it out of Hong Kong alive.
There are a litany of characters to deal with in this movie. There’s Dr. Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) who is leading the efforts to get Dr. Sun into the country safely. There’s skittish businessman Mr. Li (Xeuqi Wang) who is financially supporting Dr. Chen but wants to keep his involvement under the radar. There’s Li’s young son Chuang Guan (Bo-Chieh Wang) who is working for the resistance behind his fathers back. Li’s rickshaw driver Ah Si (Nicholas Tse) also wants to help with the cause but really just wants to marry the nice girl down the street. By telling us this I think we all know that his fate is sealed. Donnie Yen is on board as cop with a gambling problem
who finds himself routinely abused by his superiors and asked to do things that are less than scrupulous and there are others including a General looking for a war to fight, his angry daughter looking to go back home, a giant defrocked Shaolin Monk, a drug addicted beggar with lethal iron fan skills and a Captain for the Dynasty looking to prove his worth.
This large cast of characters will all come together in possibly the longest action sequence ever filmed as bodyguards and assassins and explosions and wire-fu all clash in spectacular fashion with the fate of a free China in the balance. The unfortunate part about all of this is that no matter how this revolution turns out, in a few years the Japanese are going show up and they’re going to have to go through this bloody process all over again.
So like we mentioned earlier we have two movies in ‘Bodyguards and Assassins’, one half full of melodrama and setup and one half crazy, insane action filled murderous mayhem. Does it all come together to make a cozy coherent film? No, not really. For the first half of this film to be truly effective, this being the melodramatic political prosthelytizing half of the film, there either had to be fewer characters to deal with, or to support all of the characters we did have to factor in, the movie would’ve needed to have another hour of melodrama tacked on. A father at odds with his son, a man at odds with his ex-wife who is married to the father who is at odds with his son, the daughter at odds with his father, the street urchin in love with the girl with the limp, the giant monk who makes stinky tofu who wants to get back to monastery, the kung fu master who was in love with the wrong woman who’s now a dope fiend, the captain at odds with his professor who is at odds with the government… and on and on it goes.
As it turns out the filmmakers weren’t really all that interested in developing these characters since they were simply introduced, for the most part, to have people get in the way of the explosions, round house kicks, bullets, and knives. To that end ‘Bodyguards and Assassins’ was a smashing success. The sets were amazing, the action was thrilling and exciting, the staging of this action was flawless and the execution was crisp and clean. Did all of this crazy, over the top action fit in with a period narrative about a grass roots revolution? Again, no… not really. High flying ninja’s, hardcore teenage girls doing battle against a gaggle of assassins and a dope fiend against a virtual platoon of more assassins doesn’t really fit into the basic flow of this film, but it was fun to watch. Donnie Yen’s big fight with a near invincible Cung Le was probably the action highlight of a movie that was chock full of action highlights. Cung Le vs. Donnie Yen? That’s almost a martial art movie fan’s wet dream.
Still, despite the fact I enjoyed ‘Bodyguards and Assassins’ immensely, but I do recognize that I enjoyed this movie simply because the action elements appealed to the action junkie fanboy in me. It’s a flawed movie, probably beyond repair, but still a movie I wouldn’t miss on a bet.