By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
My old cinematic friends called it “whupass.” You spell that either “whupass” or “whoopass.” A two-syllable brand for action films. They are often brainless action films, films that pushed the whupass, or the whoopass, in the absence of any strong elements of character development, nuance, or memorable dialogue past a few curt, comedic catchphrases.
Jackie Chan’s best movies, say, “Rumble in the Bronx,” or “The Legend of Drunken Master,” raised the bar. Those top-notch outings boast action to spare, but alongside character sensibility, memorable villains, meticulous choreography mixing action with comedy (Chan’s explained that he wants his fights to look like dances), and a morality which, while hardly complex, stressed heartening values. Respect others. Respect your elders. Treat others with courtesy. View yourself as part of the whole, not the main event. Acknowledge, no matter how hard it may be, that your enemies today, just might be your friends tomorrow.
“Vanguard,” released on Nov. 20, marks Jackie Chan’s seventh film with his friend Stanley Tong directing. Tong, also a highly-regarded fight choreographer, boasts a knack for keeping things moving. Sadly, this time out, such motion barely obscures the scarcity of things to actually move. The movie goes all around the world, but it never escapes the shadow of the James Bond franchise, the specter of super-trained agents forever ready to right wrongs. Standard issue whupass, in short. The train’s running, but few new thrills emerge down the line.
This time around, the mission revolves around an endangered Chinese accountant (Jackson Lou), who’s crossed the wrong people—or at least the wrong people think he’s crossed them—and needs protection. Given that the film moves between London, Dubai, Zambia, India, and China itself, we must conclude that the poor fellow isn’t safe anywhere and would be better off shot into space. It doesn’t help that his daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan) protects endangered species, a passion that’s landed her on the blacklist for black market animal traders.
Enter “Vanguard,” a super-secret organization designed to protect anyone good and right. A long look inside their super-secret (but somehow huge and sprawling) headquarters turns up, eventually, Jackie Chan himself as the leader, Tang Huanting.
He’s sitting behind a desk. He’s wearing glasses. This doesn’t bode well for the action/comedy master we know and love.
And indeed Chan doesn’t take the lead for the early action sequences. Tong, who also wrote the script, rolls out some newcomers to take the heat: Lei Zhenyu (Yang Yang), Zhang Haixuan (Ai Lun), and Miya (Mu Qimiya). They’re all young. They’re all pretty. They’re all remarkably fit. They all seem to be doing at least a reasonable amount of their own fight work (bolstered by Tong again, who collaborated with several others on the fight sequences).
But they don’t carry a movie, or a fight, the way Jackie Chan could in his prime. A rundown in a kitchen leads to all kinds of cookware and implements thrown around.
It moves, but it reminds longtime fans of how many times Chan’s used a kitchen as a battleground. They run all over the planet, running down the bad guys. But that reminds us of how Chan used to do it faster, smarter, and sweeter. With a smile.
And Jackie Chan himself? When he finally comes out from behind the desk, he manages okay. Even with the glasses. But only okay. Sad to see him in the twilight of his physical prime. He looks back on a lifetime of filmmaking (he started out in front of a camera at age 8), a lifetime of broken bones, and the inevitable toll of aging.
He’s still lovable and he will always be loveable. The time’s come, though, for him to concentrate on straight dramatic roles, and/or singing (he manages one of the soundtrack tunes quite ably).
Chan just about drowned doing one of the stunts shown here. The obligatory set of outtakes, played over the credits, seems to show the actual footage. He laughs it off, just as he’s always laughed off danger. But why all these unnecessary risks, at his age, with so shallow a gain?
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.