Dir: Stanley Tong
Jackie Chan is a workhorse. This year, as he turns 67, it will be 60 years since he entered Yu Jim Yuen’s chinese opera school, where much of the greatest generation of martial arts actors and directors was forged. For the last 50 years Chan has been making film after film, and since the release of Drunken Master in 1978 he has been essentially uncontested as the biggest star in Asian action cinema. In that time he’s broken just about every bone in his body doing stunts. He has a permanent hole in his head from one that very nearly killed him. In short, you can forgive him for appearing tired.
The last twenty years or so haven’t been the greatest time to be a Jackie Chan fan. There might be the occasional flash of inspiration (among them the rollerskate suit in Chinese Zodiac; creditable dramatic performances in the remake of The Karate Kid and The Foreigner, and the overall surprisingly solid Railroad Tigers) but even the films that have a couple of great moments can be a chore to plod through. It’s also been clear for a while that he’s been using doubles more and had greater CGI assists. Combine all that with the fact that plot, acting and character have never been his strong suits as a filmmaker, and you get the recipe for garbage like Kung Fu Yoga and Bleeding Steel.
There is some promise to Vanguard. Firstly, it reunites Jackie with Stanley Tong, who directed Police Story 3 and First Strike, as well as Rumble in the Bronx (and, ahem, Kung Fu Yoga). Secondly, it appears that Chan has begun to recognise some of his limitations. He’s billed first here of course, but largely takes a supporting role and cedes the spotlight to a younger team of Yang Yang, Lun Ai and Miya Muqi as some of Vanguard’s best protection officers. Initially, this seems like a decent idea, but whether it’s the perfunctory writing (the bromance between Yang Yang and Lun Ai is very forced) or Tong’s direction, none of the younger leads makes much of an impact. The screenplay here doesn't give them much to work with, but the essential thing they lack is anything unique about any of their screen presence, something Jackie always had in spades. None of them establish much personality, neither do they particularly stand out in the action sequences. Unfortunately, Chan can’t save the film on this score, never the most gifted actor, he’s got a poorly defined character and gives little expression to any of his dialogue, while also spending most of his time in the action sequences very much in the background, firing a gun. We probably see less than a minute of actual martial arts technique from him, perhaps half of that in the foreground of the frame.
In their first three collaborations, Stanley Tong brought out the best in Jackie. It may have been that, having directed many of his own films between the late 70s and early 90s, Chan was taking a stronger hand behind the camera, but Tong’s style both in shooting and editing seemed a perfect match for his star. Whether it’s because he remains in thrall to what is becoming an outdated action style or because he is trying to hide limitations in his cast, Tong opts for a choppier style of action here; not full Bourne perhaps, but certainly much shakier and faster cut than his work used to be. This is the worst possible decision because Jackie’s action is uniquely his own style, and in Vanguard it looks like it could come out of any other action film. There’s not even a signature stunt, though a gag excusing that is one of the film’s only proper laughs. Add woeful CGI (the lion) and green screen work, and you’ve got a film that fails on a lot of technical levels.
Vanguard isn’t Jackie Chan’s worst film, but it’s another sign that his place in the future is probably behind the camera. I would love to see him bring his old style and rhythm to films starring a new generation of action actors, but if that’s what Vanguard was going for, it’s a dismal failure.