BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS is really not fair to the assassins – it’s all about how great and selfless the bodyguards are. I thought I should give that warning to the more sensitive members of the assassin community. I still thought it was good though.
This 2009 film from director Teddy Chan (KUNG FU KILLER) is another one in that IP MAN vein of an Important Historical Drama infused with exaggerated martial arts greatness. I so wish our Oscar bait movies had kung fu in them. Think how much better IMITATION GAME would be!
In 1906, the pro-democracy activist Dr. Sun Wen (Zhang Hanyu, SPECIAL ID, THE GREAT WALL) is about to meet in British-ruled Hong Kong with regional leaders to plan a revolution, but the Chinese government is trying to assassinate him. So this is about the brave rebels who volunteer to escort him to the meeting.
The structure is apparently a turn-off for some people, but for me it worked like gangbusters, which is a type of very hard working buster of gangs. The first half has very little action, but sets up all the rebels, why they’re doing what they’re doing, what they hope to do with their lives. There’s kind of a sad TITANIC type fatalism because they lay the naive optimism on so thick that we all get the hint that most of them are not gonna make it through the action-packed second half. Only Li Yutang (Wang Xueqi, REIGN OF ASSASSINS, IRON MAN THREE), the rich businessman who rallied them to the mission, seems to see it coming. He listens guiltily as they dine and laugh and talk about their dreams.
Until now, Master Li has been a behind the scenes guy, happy to give funding to his revolutionary friend Chen Shaobai (Tony Leung Kai-fai, A BETTER TOMORROW 3, DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME) and the China Daily newspaper, but he doesn’t want to risk himself or especially his 17-year-old son Li Chong-Guang (Edison Wang, THE LOST BLADESMAN, LIFE OF PI), who just celebrated his acceptance into a western school. But Young Master, for his part, thinks it would be wrong to let his less advantaged friends take all the risk. And when Chen is kidnapped and the police shut down the newspaper, Master Li finds himself making a defiant speech and sort of becoming the leader in Chen’s absence.
(That’s kind of a nice touch, showing how overreach can push normal people into rebelling.)
Not everyone is in it for political ideals, though. Ah-si (Nicholas Tse, DRAGON TIGER GATE), the Li family’s goofy rickshaw driver, wants in out of dumb loyalty to his masters. Master Li, who likes Ah-si and has tried to help him learn to read, seems uncomfortable with this, but doesn’t stop him from helping. There’s a great tangent where Ah-si asks for the Master’s help with a marriage proposal after the mission. Instead Master Li has him go right to the girlfriend’s father and he gives him money and sets up the marriage right then and there. It’s so sweet and so sad that Ah-si doesn’t seem to read between the lines that dude, that means he doesn’t think you’re gonna survive this mission.
Another lovable character is Wang Fu-Ming, played by 6′ 11″ former NBA center Mengke Bateer. At first all we know is that he’s a giant impressed by the generosity of Young Master’s celebratory rice giveaway. Then we learn that he’s a street vendor selling stinky tofu, which becomes his nickname. Eventually the dots on his head reveal that he was once a shaolin monk. He got kicked out, though. He’d like to go back.
And then there’s Donnie Yen as Shen Chongyang, a low level cop, poor, lost his woman (Fan Bingbing, FLASH POINT, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST) because of a gambling addiction, willing to take dirty jobs like trailing the democracy activists and stealing a gun for the assassins. But he has a change of heart and this is a great role for Yen – sympathetic dirtbag deciding to pull it together to do the right thing for one god damn time in his life, contributing to a cause and even doing the ultimate you-owe-me-one: protecting Li Yutang, the stepfather of the daughter he never met! Heartbreaking. But you can do it, Shen Chongyang. You can be great. Summon your inner Donnie Yen!
The opposition is more mysterious except for their leader Yan Xiaoguo (Hu Jun, RED CLIFF, THE BODYGUARD), who we learn was once a student of Chen, but clearly went off in a different direction. It’s like when you read those articles about Steve Bannon or somebody like that, scary right wing crazies who have old teachers or hippie friends who remember them before Palpatine got to them and they remember they used to be pretty cool and kind of scratch their heads in befuddlement about it. This guy seemed to be a true believer but now he’s willing to murder to defend the Qin government. Because of that teacher-student past these two have a certain amount of respect for each other, but also an extra layer of disgust, I think.
Cung Le has a great henchman role because they treat him like a human rhinoceros. He spots Shen from across a crowded market and at first you don’t even see him, you just see a wave of people and objects flying in his wake as he plows through. And it’s a brutal, skull-knocking brawl between these two. Probly the best supporting role I’ve seen Le in, and it’s cool to see him in period garb and with his head shaved. He looks very natural but also very distinct.
Most of the second half is an extended chain of action sequences as they carry Dr. Sun through streets, suspiciously eyeing the crowds, blocking arrows shot from the roofs, various characters getting into various duels on the side, Shen running interference. Some of this unfortunately is shot more close up and shaky than is Hong Kong tradition, which undermines the movie’s argument that westernization is a positive thing. But fortunately it’s not dealbreaker-bad, it’s mostly coherent and exciting.
Three of the pro-democracy activists (including Jacky Cheung [SEVEN WARRIORS, BULLET IN THE HEAD] as Yeung Ku-wan in the opening scene) are real historical figures, so this kind of takes place in the real world. I like that they still have straight up magical kung fu shit going on. This is especially the case with the character of Liu Yubai (Leon Lai, CITY HUNTER), a ragged, bearded homeless man who Master Li approaches on the street and asks him to protect somebody, giving him an iron fan, which causes him to accept. At first it seems like “hey, I’ll hire this drunk to do a suicide mission,” but you quickly realize that they know each other from long ago, and though disgraced this man is some kind of grandmaster or something.
So late in the battle the bodyguards seem to be cornered and then they look down the street and there’s this man standing there, and you can’t see who it is at first but it’s a cleaned up Liu Yubai. “The beggar! The beggar is here!” somebody yells and his job is to fight all of the assassins to slow them down, and he’s doing graceful wire-fu, because that’s what you can do in these movies. I love it.
On the other hand, there is one completely badass touch that seems to be setting up a great martial-arts-movie showdown that I don’t believe happens. When an exiled general (Simon Yam, LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER – THE CRADLE OF LIFE) is killed, his badass daughter (Li Yuchun, FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE, THE GUILLOTINES) notices somebody else’s severed finger clutched in his dead hand. This really hooked me into the movie because of course it seems like a promise for her to eventually notice the nine-fingered motherfucker she must avenge. But – unless I missed something – it never comes about. It might not be an oversight though, it might be a cruel trick to make (SPOILER) her fate more upsetting, more frustrating.
I have to cop to not understanding the politics. I hear “democracy” and Jacky Cheung quoting Abraham Lincoln, that seems positive to me, but I’m not gonna pretend to understand it context of the history of what it meant in that time and what this revolution was all about. So the movie’s heavy-handed glorification of people willing to die for the cause – especially the characters like Ah-si and Stinky Tofu who don’t seem to understand it any more than I do – feels pretty propagandistic. But as a piece of entertainment about people bravely standing up for what they think is right, this is a good one. It made me care about the characters and then moved me but also gave me some of the good shit.
This review is dedicated to the bodyguards. Cung Le is also cool but I don’t agree with what he’s doing in this one.
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.