Watching Vanguard made me felt like Russell Crowe’s Tom Cooper from Unhinged — all hatred and anger boiling up inside me. Knowing that Jackie Chan and Stanley Tong’s high-profile collaborations nowadays — 2005’s The Myth and 2017’s Kung Fu Yoga — failed to live up to their massive hypes, I chose to keep my expectation low for their latest movie, Vanguard.
And yet, the movie turns out to be shockingly atrocious than I thought. It’s like as if Stanley Tong, who also wrote the script, simply patches up whatever bits and pieces together and added lots of showy action sequences in between. This tactic might have worked in the past during most of Jackie Chan’s movies of the 80s and 90s, where the action speaks louder than words. But the biggest difference here is no matter how flimsy or paper-thin those plots turned out to be, Jackie’s action movies of the yesteryears managed to overcome most of the flaws with great acrobatic stunts, engaging lead performance and comedy moments that were actually funny.
But in Vanguard, it was a polar opposite altogether. The so-called story here is just a mere placeholder to make way (read: big excuses) for the action sequences: The title refers to a covert security agency led by Tang Huanting (Jackie Chan), where their primary jobs are to protect the VIP clients all over the world. When one of their wealthy clients Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou) became the target of a ruthless Middle Eastern military group, Tang personally supervised the rescue mission with his trusted team members including Lei Zhenyu (Yang Yang), Zhang Haixuan (Ai Lun) and Miya (Mu Qimiya). This also includes ensuring Qin’s environmentalist-daughter’s (Xu Ruohan’s Fareeda) safety when the same military group sets out to kidnap her.
Paper-thin plot aside, Tong doesn’t seem to bother about developing any sense of character development that would at least make us care about them. Or more specifically, Tang’s young team members — that goes everyone including Yang Yang, Ai Lun and Mu Qimiya — who all appeared just to show off how nimble they manage to pull off with their physically-demanding roles. As much as I appreciated their hardworking efforts during the fight and stunt scenes, it’s just not enough to compensate their thinly-written, one-dimensional characters.
The same also goes with Jackie Chan, who may have billed as the lead star of Vanguard. But it’s more of a cheap marketing ploy to sell a big-budget Chinese New Year blockbuster (more on this later) using his brand recognition. In other words, Jackie is largely reduced to a secondary role and sadly, not a good one as well. Sure, we still get to see some of his trademark fights every now and then but it’s nothing memorable. He even looks weary and yes, lacking the same charisma that most of us have grown accustomed to his movies. It’s kind of a pity to see Jackie being relegated and underused in this movie, considering the highly-publicised news where he almost drowned while filming a jet ski scene.
It doesn’t help either that Vanguard is full of cheesy dialogues while the Cantonese dubbing — with the exception of Jackie Chan — sounds bad and even mismatched with some of the characters’ personalities. The jokes, in the meantime, are more cringey than funny.
That leaves the action sequences, which supposed to be Jackie Chan and even Stanley Tong’s bread and butter. As mentioned earlier, Vanguard has lots of action. Right to the point where Stanley goes haywire, all Michael Bay-style with big explosions and ear-shattering gunfights. If that’s not enough, he even includes an over-the-top car chase sequence straight out from a Fast & Furious playbook. Even if I willing to accept them as a guilty-pleasure entertainment, it’s hard to feel all the visceral impacts, let alone a sense of goosebumps within the elaborate action choreography. The way Stanley chose to film all the action setpieces in a choppy frame-rate style populated by Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) actually made it difficult to appreciate its choreography.
Vanguard also relies heavily on CGI too. Some of them are bad while others such as the CG animals including lion (!) and hyenas should have been omitted altogether. Seriously, what’s with Stanley Tong and his penchant of including a CG lion since Kung Fu Yoga anyway?
Remember that I mentioned this movie was being sold as big-budget Chinese New Year blockbuster? To refresh your memory, Vanguard was originally scheduled for release during the crowded Chinese New Year season but forced to postpone at the last minute due to the surges of COVID-19 pandemic. The movie even featured not one, but two significant scenes related to Chinese New Year moments, which kind of awkward and ironic after watching them now in the month of September.