After 10 years of frustrating production and roughly NT$710 million spent, Hong Kong director Teddy Chan’s (陳德森) Bodyguards and Assassins (十月圍城) has finally hit the big screen. With a star-studded ensemble cast, ace production values and an action-packed, pseudo-historical story about a group of kung fu fighters on a mission to protect revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) from the Qing court’s assassins in 1905 Hong Kong, it looks set to be a solid blockbuster. Unfortunately, there is one major flaw: Chan’s attempt to strike a balance between action and drama doesn’t flourish, making the film a merely adequate choice of entertainment for the holiday season.
The plot is simple: Sun Yat-sen — Zhang Hanyu (張涵予) in heavy makeup — is about to arrive in Hong Kong to meet with other revolutionary leaders and plot the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. To ensure Sun’s safety, activist Chen Shao-bai (Tony Leung Ka-fai, 梁家輝) turns to his friend Li Yue-tang (Wang Xueqi, 王學圻), a successful businessman who is not a revolutionary, to fund an anti-assassination operation.
Meanwhile, the Qing court sends General Xiao-guo (Hu Jun, 胡軍) and a gang of nasty royal assassins to hunt down Sun. They first slaughter a group of soldiers who are charged with protecting Sun and manage to kidnap Chen.
Li awakens to his revolutionary duty and recruits a ramshackle group of bodyguards to protect Sun. They include Li’s loyal rickshaw driver Ah Si (Nicholas Tse, 謝霆鋒), street vendor and former Shaolin monk Stinky Tofu (NBA player Mengke Bateer), aristocrat-turned-beggar Prince Lau (Leon Lai, 黎明) and gambling addict Chung-yang (Donnie Yen, 甄子丹).
With the assassins surrounding Hong Kong’s Central district ready to attack and the colonial police ordered to turn a blind eye to the assassination attempt, Sun’s bodyguards know they have to fight to the last man to get the revolutionary leader out of Hong Kong alive.
For Yen’s fans, there is a long wait to see the martial arts star unleash his awesome kung fu talent on the bad guys. Director Chan opts to build anticipation for the action extravaganza by cutting the film into two halves, with the first half going out of its way to ensure that enough screen time is given to each of the dozen or so main characters. All have their dramatic moments which shed light on their motives and dispositions. When it works, the focus on the various characters is quite engaging, and it is a pleasure to watch the pretty-faced Tse play a surprisingly convincing simpleton, and Yen as a compulsive gambler with loose morals.
When Sun arrives, the film immediately turns into a piece of action cinema, unfolding more or less in real time as the multiple action sequences are connected together to make a one-hour-long finale. During a running battle through the center of Hong Kong, all of the characters get to show off their fighting skills. It plays out like a computer game where the villains and heroes go up against each other against different backdrops.
There is a rooftop brawl, close combat and a sword fighting display. However, too much use is made of fast cuts and the action lacks punch. It fails to pump up the adrenaline in the same way that Yen did in last year’s Ip Man (葉問).
Though it is admirable on the director’s part to place emphasis on storytelling and character development in what is otherwise a purebred action flick, the film fails in its attempt to deliver genuine emotions. Chinese actor Wang is probably the only exception, and he almost single-handedly carries the dramatic weight of the film through the first act.
Preachy talk about the glory of the revolution also strikes a false note. Leung’s revolutionary and his young adherent Chung-guang, played by Taiwan’s Wang Bo-Chieh (王柏傑), enjoy their didactic speech on how the revolution will save the Chinese people a little bit too much, and when this spiel is repeated a second time, the audience is likely to roll their eyes and fidget in the seats.
BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS
TEDDY CHAN (陳德森)
WANG XUEQI (王學圻) AS LI YUE-TANG, TONY LEUNG KA-FAI (梁家輝) AS CHEN SHAO-BAI, NICHOLAS TSE (謝霆鋒) AS AH SI, DONNIE YEN (甄子丹) AS CHUNG-YANG, LEON LAI (黎明) AS PRINCE LAU, HU JUN (胡軍) AS YAN XIAO-GUO, WANG BO-CHIEH (王柏傑) AS CHUNG-GUANG
RUNNING TIME: 132 MINUTES
LANGUAGE: IN MANDARIN WITH ENGLISH AND CHINESE SUBTITLES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
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