Director – Stanley Tong – 2020 – China – Cert. tbc – 107m
Jackie Chan actioner trades on his former glory from decades ago but relies too much on CG trickery and fails to ignite the screen – on VoD from Friday, January 8th
Vanguard is an organisation which… well, it’s never clear exactly what it does, but Jackie Chan is fairly high up in it and it has a lot of field operatives and high tech equipment, surveillance, weaponry and similar. This film moves around various high profile international locations – including London, the African bush and Dubai. When a man is kidnapped by criminals who want to access his vast wealth for their own nefarious ends, it’s up to Vanguard to rescue him.
One could be charitable and say that no-one goes to a Jackie Chan movie for the script, but the script here is so sketchy as to be almost non-existent. It plays out rather as a series of set pieces, and I’d love to be able to tell you that these are incredible – in some Jackie Chan movies that’s true – but sadly, in this one, for the most part, they really aren’t.
Chan in his heyday picked up the baton passed on by some of the great stunt / gag players of Hollywood’s silent era (Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd), combined what they were doing with Chinese martial arts and appeared in some truly spectacular films such As the Project A and Police Story films. Part of this is down to the fact that in Hong Kong movies in the 1970s through to the 1990s, many stunts were done for real. So when you see Chan dangling off a rope ladder attached to a helicopter over Kuala Lumper in Police Story III Supercop (Stanley Tong, 1992), the year before computers revolutionised the film industry in Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) the stunts are for real, no Hollywood studio or CG trickery.
These days Jackie Chan is obviously not as young as he once was – he’s now in his late sixties – and likely can’t personally maintain the level of physical prowess required for the mayhem he achieved in those sometimes stupendous early films. And these days, Chinese films generally make far more use of computer technology in their visual effects so that an action movie like Vanguard can include a sequence where a motor boat does a U-turn to rescue someone from the edge of a vast waterfall. The problem is that whereas Chan fighting people with a bicycle in a narrow street in Project A (Jackie Chan, 1983) or the aforementioned danglng in Supercop are real, the boat on the waterfall obviously isn’t. (Or if it is, we no longer believe it.)
A number of younger actors are on hand to do stunts, and clearly put their all into it, but the magic mostly just isn’t there. There are some exceptions – there’s a terrific scene where an actress somersaults onto a villain’s car to fight him as he drives. And there are knowing jokes such as when Jackie is about to lead over a shopping mall balcony recalling a celebrated stunt in Police Story (Jackie Chan, Chen Chi-hwa, 1985) where he descends a pole festooned with live electric lights, but here someone tells him “the stairs are over there” so he uses them instead.
There are some great ideas in Vanguard, but the script barely develops them into anything, such as a woman who spend much time hanging out with dangerous wildlife in the African bush. Then it’ll suddenly throw in the occasional moment of genius, like the remote controlled contraption that rises from a cargo ship and attempts to wipe out a battleship. This device would have easily fitted into one of the better Bond movies. Unfortunately, the script immediately squanders the opportunity and the contraption swiftly disappears from the film.
Vanguard really is a film for die-hard Jackie Chan completists only. If you don’t know his work, seek out some of it on home video or streaming services and see what he was capable of at his best.
Vanguard is out on VoD in the UK from Friday, January 8th.