I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Bodyguard

tn_bodyguardA few weeks ago at the Seattle International Film Festival I saw THE BODYGUARD, or MY BELOVED BODYGUARD as it’s currently listed on IMDb. It’s the new Sammo Hung vehicle, and his first time directing since ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA AND AMERICA in 1997. That’s a long fucking time! I didn’t realize it had been that long, but it was still thrilling to see the credit “Director and Action Director: Sammo Hung” not only splashed across a big screen, but in front of a sold out crowd. Unfortunately I can’t say the movie fulfilled the promise of those words.

Hung plays Ding, who we hear through both expository dialogue and seemingly-third-person narration was an elite agent in the Hong Kong equivalent of the Secret Service. He recently witnessed a gang murder and might’ve put a major gang figure away, but in the lineup he couldn’t remember him because “We think he has dementia.” (I feel like there might’ve been a more dramatic way to reveal that information than to just have a cop say it in the opening scene.)

There’s a little Clint Eastwood in the movie’s quiet, gentle portrait of Ding’s lonely life fending off advances from his landlord (Qinqin Li) and mourning his relationship with his daughter, who won’t speak to him because he lost her daughter (to a child murderer?) when he was supposed to be watching her. It’s never fully explained, but seems doubly tragic because we can assume his condition played a part in what happened, but his daughter seems to blame it on him just being a piece of shit.

Meanwhile there’s this little girl next door named Cherry (Jacqueline Chan – no relation) whose dad (Andy Lau, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME) is abusive and “except for his hair he’s a total loser,” so she hides out with Ding and becomes his surrogate grand daughter. It’s pure Hong Kong saccharine, but I can’t deny that saccharine is sweet. It works. It’s also the source of the action portion of the movie because the dad has a huge gambling debt and in the movie’s first, biggest and surprisingly late action sequence he steals a bag of jewelry from a sleeping, farting gangster’s hotel room and there is a pretty good chase scene. He slips away and the Triads can’t find him so they come after his daughter, and that means resting badass Ding gets involved. In the last third of the movie or so.

mp_bodyguardThis played in the same AMC theater where I’ve seen Asian imports like KUNG FU KILLER, MERMAID, IP MAN 3 and KILL ZONE 2, always with around ten people or less in the audience. It made me wish it could’ve been KILL ZONE 2 that I saw with a crowd, because that is a truly great martial arts movie with a great story and characters and several absolutely jawdropping action sequences. It would add an extra jolt to share the experience with others.

Not that a SIFF crowd is always the best to see a movie with. I forgave them for laughing at Ding’s memory lapses – for example picking the lock on his front door because he forgot he wears the keys around his neck – like they were cute little jokes. Not as much when they laughed at all the martial arts as if they were campy. But I got through it. And they definitely seemed to get way more excited by the fights than I did, so good for them. They also thought that when characters called Ding “Kung Fu Panda” it was like the funniest joke of all time.

I was a little nervous about if this movie would be too sad for me. As I’ve mentioned before, my dad had several miserable years being devoured by Alzheimer’s before passing away 6 months ago. It will remain a traumatic time for me and a terrifying spectre of my worst fear for my own future. As it turns out, Ding is older and less advanced in his dementia than my dad was, really having more of a case of senility. But he reminded me more of my dad than John Lithgow’s Alzheimer’s sufferer in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES did. Something about the look on his face, a distance, and a calmness hiding helplessness.

Acting-wise, Hung is successful. He’s a lonely old man too nice to take out his frustration and confusion on others. So he just kind of pretends like he knows what’s going on. If there was more depth to this thing maybe I wouldn’t be complaining about the subpar action. This is something Hung will have to look into as an aging action star. But he does have a solid classical action movie premise here, and also pays homage to other Hong Kong legends by having Dean Shek, Karl Maka and Tsui Hark cameo as old men who sit on the street commenting like Sweet Dick Willie and friends in DO THE RIGHT THING.

As a filmmaker Hung gets playful, even random. The movie opens with a fight in the rain at night, looking like THE GRANDMASTER, seeming kind of classy. But then there are the animated crayon drawing scenes, and the THE STREET FIGHTER style x-rays of breaking bones. It gets goofy. And it has many lovingly incorporated music cues. Some dude in the crowd was mystified at the use of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Yeah, it’s in English, but it perfectly describes him missing the girl.

I wish Hung felt as enthusiastic about the fight scenes. When he finally gets pushed to the limit and has to kick some asses it’s very reminiscent of late Seagal: close up, heavily edited, mostly just waving his arms around, occasionally a bigger move done by an obvious stunt double.

This is inevitable, it’s sad for me to face that we’ve reached that point. As old as I suppose they are, I think of KILL ZONE and IP MAN 2 as pretty recent movies, and those both have outstanding fights that Hung both choreographed and participated in. So I suppose this is a more powerful illustration of the same thing Ding’s dementia tells us: no human body lasts forever. Not Sammo’s, not anyone’s. Eventually ours will give out. Our brains will stop remembering, our organs will cease operating properly, our muscles will stop holding us up. Even if we’re lucky enough to last a long time, we can’t have it all. We’ll live long enough for our Chinese Opera training to fail us. But that’s okay. It beats youthful death by misadventure.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as my family and my heroes have been dying. It tends to remind you about that whole mortality thing. I’ve made it to an age where I still think I’m a young guy trying to get his life rolling, but realistically I’m getting old and regretting not having gotten my shit together the way I expected to. I’ve long since soared past the “Orson Welles was only 26 when he made CITIZEN KANE” misery and have to resort to “Colonel Sanders didn’t invent KFC until he was in his 60s” for comfort. And I have morbid thoughts about what happens if I suddenly have a heart attack or I’m in a plane crash. I can’t die, I never quite my day job. I never wrote a movie. I never had kids. I never rode the Fast and the Furious ride.

More than that I worry about what Ding has here, what my dad had. I’d never want my lady to have to deal with what my mother did. Actually it would be worse, since I don’t have the kind of insurance or savings that could keep me taken care of.

I want to get old. I want to remember. And I want to leave a great legacy, one that could also help take care of whoever I might leave behind. But we can’t control all these things. We can’t all be as great as Sammo, and for all we know he frets about not having Jackie’s career. Eventually we’ll be gone. Most of us won’t leave behind a legendary body of work like Sammo, but we’ll live on in someone’s memories of a funny thing we said one time, a laugh we had together, an act of kindness. That’s not bad.

I need to remember, there’s no point in worrying about it. What’s the purpose of having the good times if you spend the whole time dreading them ending? You don’t watch OUT FOR JUSTICE worrying about the inevitability of SNIPER: SPECIAL OPS the whole time. No. You just watch OUT FOR JUSTICE. That’s what life is.

I hope THE BODYGUARD doesn’t mean the end of good new Sammo Hung movies. But if it does, there’s always the old ones. For now we have the memories – let’s enjoy them. There will always be EASTERN CONDORS.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, June 23rd, 2016 at 11:52 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

13 Responses to “The Bodyguard”

  1. Great insight, Vern. I completely understand your worries about getting old and I also fear the dementia I watched take hold of my grandmother.

    I want to address the laughter you discussed in the movie. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say anything about that particular situation, but it also came up in THE KILLER thread about assholes laughing at things as if they thought they were campy or they couldn’t handle the sincerity of them. I 100% agree that this happens, but I also don’t think we can judge what is making someone laugh. I’ve had movie going experiences where I’ve laughed out of sheer joy at what’s happening, and not because it was a joyful or funny scene. It’s just that something caught me as wonderful and I laugh. And that could’ve been an awesome martial arts move. I think we need to be careful of becoming cynical in our own way and assuming someone is laughing in mockery.

  2. George Sanderson

    June 23rd, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    Hi Vern,
    Thanks for the review and it is nice to hear that some Hong Kong/Chinese movies are getting some theatre time over there. I live in Hong Kong, which means I get so inundated with Canto-gangster films, most of which aren’t great, that I take the accessibility for granted.
    On the subject of ageing, just yesterday my last surviving grandparent passed away. My grandmother punched her ticket and the age of 90. She outlived my other grandparents as well as a second husband, in my opinion, because of two things she did religiously; keep active and learnt new things.
    The keeping active bit was probably most important because of the benefits of even mild exercise for your brain activity. As soon as she had a fall and was no longer able to tend to her garden or walk to her church then things she was doing like learning how to use a digital camera just became too difficult.
    So my advice, keep active and keep learning!

  3. Maggie – I agree, and I really meant this as a mild complaint. I have been in some really obnoxious audiences, and this wasn’t one of them. I even forgave the young people who were definitely laughing at every other line of dialogue in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. At least they seemed to like the movie overall.

    George – 90 is a good number and I think that’s good advice you have there. One side of my family lived into their 90s, so heredity-wise it’s a coin toss for me.

  4. Very sorry to hear about your dad, Vern.
    J

  5. Well, that was a fucking bummer right after waking up.

    (Not complaining, just making making a statement. Never stop writing what’s on your mind, Vern.)

  6. I think I am in the minority, as I actually really enjoyed this film, from some of the brutal action to the numerous cameos that are peppered throughout the film. Quite a bit away from some of Sammo’s classics though, and I don’t think we will ever get something as great as what he was turning out in the 80’s.

    I also have to agree with Vern regarding this illness. It is the one condition that I am genuinely terrified of getting. Quite a number of people in my family has had it at the end of their lives. I don’t think the film really showed how bad this can really get.

    For another Hong Kong film with a similar idea, I would recommend Johnnie To’s Vengeance, which also deals with a main character having dementia/alzheimers.

  7. Don’t get your hopes up about the F&F ride, Vern. It’s really not that great. In fact, it’s barely a “ride.” Certainly not in the way that an immersive experience based on a franchise that is all about driving fast and doing crazy stunts with cars should be. For instance you do NOT get into a replica of Dom’s charger that rears up on its back wheels when it takes off. That is mistake #1 in my opinion. Second of all it is a motion simulator, which is obviously a giant waste of potential. And to add to the indignity, it’s part of Universal’s “tram tour” which means you have to suffer through half an hour of other stuff first. Someday they’ll smarten up and build a real ride, perhaps based on Race Wars, or Dom & Brian’s quarter mile race at the end of 1 where they race to beat the train, or the heist from 5, or the air drop from 7. Until then, you should live your life without regret. Ride or die.

  8. The idea to base an amusement park ride on “Race Wars” threw me for quite a loop there. I can see the tears and recriminations of the riders as they come out of the KKK Tunnel of Hate.

  9. Great write up Vern

  10. Audience laughter at non-comedic moments can be a sign of enjoyment rather than disrespect. I have a friend who always laughs at movies he’s enjoying.

    I always remember what Vern said about BLACK DYNAMITE: “When he kicks people through walls you laugh not because it’s a joke but because it’s awesome.”

  11. Vern, sorry to hear about your dad. Like you, my genes are a coin-toss but I eat blueberries like a mofo and try to learn new things constantly in an attempt to ward off Old Man Alzheimers. AND like you, I’m at an age where I feel like I haven’t accomplished as much as I wanted to — BUT you’ll never be as young as you are right now, so keep swinging, my friend. Like my badass grandpa said until the day he passed away (which I’m just taking on faith from my family, I think he actually just GTFO and is roaming the land like Caine being a badass) “Any day above ground is a good one, so let’s go out and show these bastards what’s what.”

    This flick sounds to me like I’ll have the same reaction to it as I did to Jackie’s latest POLICE STORY movie – not NEW POLICE STORY, but the one with his daughter. It’s definitely not hitting the heights of the old POLICES or PROJECT A’s or ARMOUR OF GODs… but the fact that he’s still out there making what he can is amazing, and I’m trying hard to meet these flicks in the middle. We’ll always have DRUNKEN MASTER 2.

    What I do think that Jackie and Sammo need to focus like hell on (and maybe they are – it’s not like I’m following them around or anything) is TEACHING THE NEXT GENERATION. Look for some raw talent, take these kids under their wings, beat the hell out of ’em, throw them off of buses and through stained glass windows, knock their smart phones out of their damn hands, and help them make some incredible flicks. They need to Sifu it up so that their incredible wisdom doesn’t go to the grave with them.

    If they HAVE been doing that, then I haven’t seen any of these next generation movies yet, so somebody please point them out to me so that I may watch the hell out of them. Thank you and Buddha bless you.

  12. I enjoyed this one, apparently more than you seemed to. My grandfather got dementia and it ate him alive. Really puts things in perspective for me. Here was this man who fought in World War II, raised six kids, worked on a farm and airport, raised some grand kids, and now he can’t control his bowls or even remember who he is.

    Like many I can really relate to the line about not accomplishing what I thought I should of by now. Especially after last year/early this year when I was convinced I was going to finally get a family and thus finally be happy (maybe). Haha nope, I was played like a fiddle (again). I’m trying to follow your lead and not hold grudges and I think I’m doing pretty good. Some days are better than others but compared to how I was (holding onto EVERYthing (negative) I think I’m doing good. I don’t hate all women and am not mad about the Ghostbusters remake so I guess I’m doing better with rejection than many seem to be doing.

    Mr.Shemp brought up Police Story 2013 (aka Police Story: Lockdown) as a comparison and I think that is apt. Everyone seemed to hate that one and I was fine with it. I didn’t go all #notmypolicestory at least. It has a lot of problems but I’ve been enjoying watching Chan slowly expand his acting chops over the last decade. I liked how in that one he didn’t play a Super Cop, he played a regular mediocre cop who WISHED he was a Super Cop. So yeah, I’m nicer to these late stage HK action star pictures than most I guess.

  13. Geoffreyjar, we are parking our cars in the same garage. Time marches on and in the end, NONE of us will be able to have a 20 minute long kung fu melee in an abandoned warehouse with a little mute monkey dude tossing explosives at us before jumping out of the building as it explodes while every movie camera in Hong Kong films it. BUT THAT HAPPENED… and your grandfather rocked it out… and some women are awesome (and some are terrible! Just like men!)… and Chan and Sammo are still making flicks.

    So we gotta do what we can with what we got today. And if we don’t, then we have another chance tomorrow. Never forget what the Man said: “Don’t let the bastards bring you down.” And that Man’s name? Jesus.

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