When gangsters murder a man in a small town near the Russian border in northeastern China, the lone witness proves unable to identify the culprits. He is Ding Hu (Sammo Hung), a retired Central Security Bureau officer now living alone with early onset dementia and the grief of having lost his granddaughter. Shunned by his family, Ding's only friend is Cherry (Jacqueline Chan) the feisty little girl that lives next door. Cherry latches onto Ding as a surrogate parent on account her real dad Li Zheng-Jiu (Andy Lau) is a low-life criminal and inveterate gambler. To pay off his debts to local mob boss Choi (Feng Jia-Yi), Li travels across the border to Vladivostok to steal a bag full of jewels from a Russian gangster. Unfortunately greed gets the best of Li and he makes off with the loot. To track down Li, Choi and his men target Cherry. On seeing the child in danger something snaps inside Ding turning him back into an unstoppable badass with lethal kung fu skills.
My Beloved Bodyguard (released as simply The Bodyguard in some territories) marks a return to directing for legendary Hong Kong martial arts star Sammo Hung after an absence of two decades. In that time Sammo dabbled with Hollywood via the two-season television show Martial Law, was allegedly courted by George Lucas to stage the lightsaber fights in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002) (that did not pan out) and remained a stalwart albeit increasingly marginalized force within the Hong Kong film industry as an actor and action choreographer. Happily superstar actor-producer Andy Lau sought to repay his debt to Sammo for launching his career by assembling a project that restores him to full-fledged auteur.
Sammo's comeback vehicle fits into a surprisingly enduring sub-genre of action-thrillers wherein hard-bitten tough guys find redemption through paternal relationships with cute ickle girls: e.g. Léon (1994), Man on Fire (2004), the Korean-made The Man from Nowhere (2010) and arguably The Equalizer (2014). My Beloved Bodyguard stands out from the pack in large part through the novelty of its ageing action hero suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Which, in the wrong hands, could have been a tasteless gimmick. Happily My Beloved Bodyguard tackles tricky subject matter with sensitivity and tact. Indeed a good two thirds of the film is a charming, well-observed slice of life comedy-drama. Set in a fascinating low-life milieu where the street cultures of China, Korea and Russia intersect, the story unfolds at a measured pace. As director Sammo styles the film in a hazy dreamlike fashion, matching offbeat visuals with snappy storybook narration to match Ding's fragmented state of mind. He takes care to establish the tender, mutually-supportive relationship between ailing old man and neglected child before busting out his still-devastating kung fu moves. Fans will doubtless relish watching the portly yet uncannily lightning fast badass flip gangsters through broken glass or snap bones in x-ray vision a la Sonny Chiba in The Street Fighter (1975). Andy Lau, a rare superstar willing to lay his ego aside to play a sleazebag supporting role, lands his own brief but exciting suspense sequence ripping off the Russian mob. Yet just as impressive as the action is Sammo the actor's achingly sad portrayal of a confused, melancholy, vulnerable old man grasping at the remnants of his failing mind. Always one to expand the parameters of martial arts cinema, Sammo has his strongest acting role here since Heart of a Dragon (1985) and delivers a more subtle and nuanced turn. If the core relationship is unavoidably sentimental, the film to its great credit does not sugar-coat the awful reality of living with dementia. Jiang Jun's screenplay pinpoints a lot of the insensitivity and in some cases outright abuse and exploitation faced by real-life sufferers as Ding's failing mental state makes him a target for swindlers and a pariah amongst his family.
As a thriller the film suffers from wayward momentum along with a few narrative inconsistencies including a silly end credits sequence with rising star Eddie Peng that feels like a sop to stringent mainland Chinese censors. Yet compensating for these rare lapses are the often poignant moments rich in character interplay and disarmingly weighty drama. For example Ding's last ditch attempt to reconcile with his estranged daughter by way of a pleading phone message is deeply affecting. Amidst the heart-wrenching drama Sammo finds room for fun including a selection of crowd-pleasing cameos sure to delight seasoned fans of HK cinema. Karl Maka (his co-star in fan-favourite Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon (1990)), visionary filmmaker Tsui Hark and trailblazing actor-producer Dean Shek portray a trio of old neighbours that serve as a kind of wisecracking Greek chorus. Plus Sammo's junior brother Yuen Biao pops up in an all too brief supporting role. The film builds to a grand centrepiece brawl faintly reminiscent of a key scene in The Equalizer although more explicitly referencing Sammo's thematically similar social 'dramedy'-cum-kung-fu classic Pedicab Driver (1989). An old Sammo Hung movie would have ended on a freeze frame after the last villain fell. Here however things move past the showdown, detailing an emotionally shattering aftermath with no fairytale resolution beyond the steadfast resolution to soldier on through life as best we can.
Hong Kong born actor, producer and director and one of the best known figures in Hong Kong cinema. Hung's large frame belies a formidable martial arts ability, and he's best known for his collaborations with Jackie Chan during the 1980s and more recently for his US TV show Martial Law.