Tang Huanting (Jackie Chan) runs Vanguard, a crack security team protecting high-profile Chinese citizens active overseas. When terrorists target Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou), a Chinese accountant based in London along with his family, Vanguard agents Lei Zhenyu (Yang Yang), Mi Ya (Miya Muqi) and Zhang Kaixuan (Ai Lun) spring into action. They discover Qin had been working for the leader of the Brothers of Vengeance before he tipped off Scotland Yard. Now Omar (Eyad Hourani), son of the slain leader of said terrorist cell, seeks revenge. So Tang and his team fly to Africa to save Qin's conservationist daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan), now the unwitting target of a kidnap attempt, in the first stop on a breakneck, globetrotting high-stakes adventure.
Vanguard reunites Hong Kong action icon Jackie Chan with Stanley Tong, the director that first broke him in America with Rumble in the Bronx (1995). These days both men seem less interested in the international market than playing to the tastes of their mainland Chinese audience. Hence Vanguard, an identikit blockbuster assembled from choice bits of Michael Bay movies, the Mission: Impossible franchise and Fast and Furious films, is equal parts glossy globetrotting adventure fare and jingoistic propaganda piece. It is not quite pitched at Wolf Warrior (2015) levels of jingoism but the sight of Jackie leading a squad of anonymously buff commando types chanting "Victory! Victory! Victory!" is far removed from the self-deprecating, apolitical everyman heroes the star essayed in his prime.
Tong's film opens in London with crowds at Trafalgar Square eagerly anticipating the countdown to Chinese New Year. It ends in Dubai with masses excitedly doing the same. Along the way the film paints a colourful comic book vision in which China and its cultural exports are so dominant and such a positive force for righting wrongs around the world it seems only natural that a super high-tech security force safeguards its wealthiest citizens and global business interests. In one especially revealing, albeit toe-curling scene Zhang Kaixuan's little son dubs him Captain China whom he insists is "more awesome than Captain America." You can almost hear the government spokesman hectoring local kids to forget those Marvel movies and embrace home-grown patriotic action heroes. Some would rightly point out that Hollywood has been producing jingoistic propaganda pieces disguised as action entertainment for decades. To the point where they were parodied in Team America: World Police (2004). Even so Vanguard's cheerfully unsubtle attempt to paint China (and Dubai) as a vital force for global harmony will leave some decidedly uncomfortable.
Atypically gun-heavy and visceral for a Jackie Chan vehicle, to its credit Vanguard strives for some emotional depth between car chases and explosions. Still it is hard to care when the characters are so uniformly bland. Jackie still raises a smile busting out some old familiar moves, but the ageing action star largely takes a back seat to a supporting cast that while photogenic prove personality-free. Indeed international viewers will likely be hard pressed to pick any one of them out of a line-up. Of the group Ai Lun most clearly apes Jackie's screen persona as he pulls goofy faces and semi-improvises his way through various slapstick fu fights. However the bulk of the film dwells on colourless action stud Yang Yang and vapid heroine Xu Ruohan. Their characters’ romance is rendered all the more uninteresting by an asinine script along with Ruohan's inability to alter her one bemused facial expression.
The action set-pieces, while efficient, are strictly by numbers. Clearly wire and computer graphics assisted in parts (including an embarrassing African encounter with CG-animated lions), lacking the exuberant physicality of vintage Jackie Chan. An array of exotic locations add an undeniably glamorous, quasi-epic sweep. Tong puts an amusing Hong Kong cinema spin on certain filmic tropes familiar from Bay's work and the M:I and F&F franchises as the Vanguard team perform outlandish stunts (including a gunfight atop a hoverboard) and wield increasingly absurd gadgets like robot spy pigeons and remote-controlled bees. Yet these self-consciously zany sequences sit uneasily alongside scenes alluding to real life terrorist atrocities and the aforementioned propaganda.
I really wish the Chinese Government would stay out of the movie business, OK, there's nothing new about governments taking an interest in filmmaking, but everything these guys touch turns to lead. Jackie Chan is a cheerleader for them in real life too, so different from the plucky underdog we loved in his earlier films. I believe he has seriously alienated the Hong Kong fans who made him what he is. It's such a shame.
22 Oct 2021
Much as happened with John Wayne in the Seventies it seems Jackie Chan is sorely out of step with the political climate of the times. Back in the 90's he was very active in social justice and charitable causes. So I suspect his shift in attitude is merely a cynical ploy to court the mainland box office. That does not make it any less bitter a pill to swallow.