Jackie Chan is almost the only fun part of “Vanguard”

Vanguard Jackie Chan in Vanguard (GSC Movies/Gravitas Ventures)

Chan’s latest collaboration with Supercop director Stanley Tong is an airless bore.

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London. Chinese New Year. The Arctic Wolves, a nefarious mercenary company led by the vicious Broto (Brahim Chab, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear) andemployed by up-and-coming Middle Eastern crime lord Omar (Eyad Hourani, Omar), are in town on business. That business? Kidnapping Chinese businessman Qin Gouli (Jackson Lou, First Strike). Qin worked with Omar’s late father, and the crime lord is certain that the businessman knows where his dad’s fortune has been stashed.

Unfortunately for Omar and the Wolves, Qin had the foresight to hire some protection. That protection? Vanguard, an international security firm run by Tang Huating (Jackie Chan). Tang and his protégés are masters of everything from martial arts to gunplay to high tech spycraft. Two of Vanguard’s best agents, Lei (Yang Yang, The King’s Avatar) and Zhang (Lun Ai, The Human Comedy) swiftly thwart the kidnapping.

Omar, determined to reclaim his dad’s assets and take his revenge on the world, orders the Wolves to travel to Africa and kidnap Qin’s daughter Fareeda (Ruohan Xu), currently working on the continent as a conservationist, for leverage. At Qin’s behest, Tang and Vanguard take off in pursuit. Vanguard’s battle with the Wolves will take them from Africa to Omar’s fortress to Dubai. Action from the comedic (Chan and one of Broto’s goons get on the wrong side of a lion) to the dramatic (Vanguard attempt to rescue Lei and Fareeda from Omar and a massive gunfight breaks out).

Unfortunately, Vanguard is far less thrilling than its summary suggests. While Chan and fight choreographer Guanhua Han (The Foreigner) provide some welcome bright spots, Vanguard is mostly a dull mess. Its performances, barring Chan’s, are flatter than day-old club soda. Its non-martial arts action is bland, and often falls victim to shabby special effects work. Above all else, Vanguard’s screenplay (written by director Tong) is just dreadful – all of the problems listed above trace back to the script.

While Chan and fight choreographer Guanhua Han (The Foreigner) provide some welcome bright spots, Vanguard is mostly a dull mess.

Outside of Chan, who gets to jump between serious-minded competence and slightly astonished disbelief, everyone in Vanguard gets one of two notes to play. The heroes are pleasant. The villains are evil. Any hints of depth – for example the implied tension between Qin and Fareeda over Qin’s remarrying – are swiftly ignored. Without anything to go on besides “you’re good” and “you’re evil,” the cast’s work ranges from strictly fine to cringe-inducingly awkward. And just when Vanguard looks like it might give Yang a motivating tragedy (and thus give Yang something to work with), it backs off on following-through, lest there be actual consequences of any sort.

Han’s fight choreography is often quite good – whether during the opening, where Lei and Zhang raid a restaurant to rescue Qin from the Wolves, or during the brief moments where Chan’s Tang gets to take center stage. But hand-to-hand fights only make up a small portion of Vanguard’s action scenes. There’s a close-range gunfight that gets interrupted by a lion. There’s an extended boat chase. There’s a massive tacticool-style assault on Omar’s palace, which is sporadically interrupted by a Vanguard member on a full-blown futuristic hoverboard. There’s a car chase through Dubai which turns into a foot chase that ends in an aquarium.

Poorly done special effects work undermines almost all of these. Blatant effects are not automatically bad effects. But in Vanguard’s case the contrast between the strong choreography of the hand-to-hand fights and the weightlessness that plagues the other action sequences only makes the latter look worse. This is especially noticeable during the attack on the palace, where the reveal of the hoverboard aims to be cool and surprising and instead lands as a baffling distraction. And without getting into total spoilers, Vanguard pulls the rug out from under its own setting up what could be a terrific villain death and then doing nothing with it. Don’t introduce a tank full of sharks and pointedly get blood in the water if no one is going to get devoured by sharks. That’s just disappointing.

Vanguard even fails as pro-Chinese propaganda. It opts to glorify the nation via a dreadfully cloying kute child as opposed to the unapologetic bombast of, say, Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior II. And, as with so many other things in Vanguard, the kute child doesn’t really go anywhere. He vanishes from the film before the raid on Omar’s castle, his last act being to declare that Captain China (while there is a superhero who goes by that name, he doesn’t look like the kid’s toy) is better than Captain America. Vanguard’s attempt to sing its nation trips on its own mawkishness and falls right on its face.

Vanguard’s script is its greatest weakness. Everything is thinly sketched, from the shared histories of its characters to the exact capabilities of Vanguard as an organization. Omar is vaguely a terrorist but doesn’t have any ideology beyond avenging his father’s death. Broto and the Arctic Wolves are evil mercenaries… And that’s all there is to them. Vanguard are a heroic security team, and that’s all there is to them. 

Even Tang, who has more of a character than anyone else due to Chan’s long-lasting star persona, is ultimately an archetype with a bit of life breathed into him by his performer. Combine this pervasive flatness with Vanguard’stotal aversion to permanent consequences of any sort and the result is a hollow movie that skims along on cruise control. 

It is a treat to watch Chan work – he may not be as fast as he once was, but he’s still skilled as hell and thoroughly funny. But he’s also made a lot of great movies, movies that offer far, far more than Vanguard does. Case in point? Supercop, an earlier collaboration with Vanguard’s director/writer Stanley Tong that also stars the inimitable Michelle Yeoh

Vanguard premieres in theaters (those that are still open, at least) November 20th.

Vanguard Trailer:

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