Released in 2020, unfortunately during the COVID-19 pandemic which delayed its released in China and worldwide, Vanguard is global superstar Jackie Chan’s latest film and one of his most ambitious. Compared favourably by some as China’s answer to James Bond, this high action thriller barely stops for a breather in its fast-paced, nearly two hour long runtime.
Because of its low-key release in 2020 and its January 2021 DVD release in the UK, Vanguard is quite unknown by many, unless you are perhaps a hardcore Jackie Chan fan but if you are, you are likely to enjoy it in spite of some of its missteps. A stark difference to his usual action comedy films he’s become well known for, it’s less of a comedy and much of the martial arts choreography is more in vein with his classic Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese films of yesteryear and those he’s done in between his Hollywood career.
However, Chan also takes a surprising step back in the film as, although he of course gets lead billing and is by far its biggest star, he is more of a supporting cast member and gives himself significantly less screen time than the younger rising actors.
His character Tang Huangting, the commander of international security company Vanguard, is a more serious one for him to take on and one of few where his performance is against type (another prominent one being in The Foreigner). In the film he leads a team of highly trained “bodyguards” (agents) on a rescue mission which then leads to trying to defeat a terrorist organisation who attempted a hostage kidnapping.
The team he leads are a group of young but very capable agents who do most of the ass-kicking; Chan’s fight scenes are criminally limited and he makes use of guns a lot more than what we are used to seeing him do.
This film could be seen as more of a star vehicle for the young actors (Yang Yang, Ai Lun and Miya Muqi) who play the three main agents, and Miya (who plays Mi Ya – very creative!), is perhaps the most brutal as she deftly handles men probably twice her size, breaking bones as she goes. Could she be the next Michelle Yeoh? Yang Yang (as Lei Zhenyu) and Ai Lun (as Zhang Kaixuan), on the other hand, have clearly learnt well from Jackie as some of their fight scenes make ingenious use of objects to fight with just as he is famous for doing – including chairs, pans and even ground chillis! Ouch. The connection between these two male co-stars is a nice touch as it allows them to show they can convey emotion as two best friends just as well as they can fight; and there’s far better on-screen chemistry between them than Yang Yang and his love interest Fareeda (Xu Ruohan).
The action sequences – as you’d expect from a Jackie Chan film – go all out. The best include the river rapids fight, which if you watch until the end credits you can see most of it was actually on location in the water and when Chan reportedly almost drowned, and the car chase through Dubai that gives the Fast & Furious films a run for their money. The shootout scene with the terrorist organisation “Brothers of Vengeance” however, is a little chaotic to follow, but you’d expect it to be considering the premise of it.
If you’re not used to overly long and drawn out fight and action sequences like some of these, however exciting they may be, that may be more a cultural difference; in behind the scenes footage filming Rush Hour, a point is made by Jackie that he’s found most Western audiences don’t like them to be much longer than a few minutes max. But if you’re an adrenaline junkie for these sort of scenes and don’t like too much filler or talking, you’ll probably lap them up.
While the action sequences are undeniably thrilling, there’s also use of very obvious and poor CGI (China seem to consistently fall way below par in this area) – particularly the lion scene, where after seeing the amazing technological advances showcased in the 2019 version of The Lion King you’d expect the CGI to be much better. But unfortunately you’re left cringing at how bad it is in comparison in this film. Okay, so the damsel in distress (Fareeda, the wildlife preservation activist who they jet off to Africa to save before she’s kidnapped/killed) has to roll around in the grass and snuggle with lions so using real, tame lions would have posed some dangers, but surely they had access to much better CGI for what appears to be a big budget judging by the rest of the film? It was like something out of a 90s computer game randomly dropped in the middle of a 21st Century film!
Also, if you’re not used to watching Chinese films and TV shows, you’ll likely find many of the non-action dialogue-rich scenes funny in a not-actually-funny kind of way. They’re cheesy and cliché, have a number of nationalistic references to China (of course), and the acting by most in general is either exaggerated or wooden. But thankfully, much of the dialogue is unimportant as you don’t need to follow it to know what’s really going on – great if you don’t understand Mandarin, which more than half the film is in. Though it’s impressive hearing some non-Chinese actors attempt a few lines in it.
There may never be a Chinese James Bond, but Vanguard does come close in terms of sheer, exhilarating action to rival the iconic film series. Of course, overall it’s certainly nowhere near on par with them or in fact a lot of films in regards to acting, dialogue (although yes, the Bond films do also contain some cheesy, albeit classic quotes and one-liners every now and then) or CGI. It is nevertheless, an enjoyable film if you can sit through all 110 minutes of it, even if it just to see a few scenes of Jackie showing he’s still got skills despite being in his mid-60s.