Jackie Chan as Tang Huanting
Yang Yang as Lei Zhenyu
Ai Lun as Zhang Kaixuan
Mu Qimiya as Miya
Xu Ruohan as Fareeda
Jackson Lou as Qin Guoli
Eyad Hourani as Omar
Written and Directed by Stanley Tong
For this longtime fan of Asian cinema, it’s hard to believe that nearly 25 years have passed since Rumble in the Bronx became Jackie Chan’s entrée into the mainstream U.S. market, kicking off Hollywood’s embrace/co-option of Hong Kong’s action traditions and choreography, as well as some of its stars and filmmakers. Unfortunately, Vanguard, the latest collaboration between Chan and Rumble director Stanley Tong, exemplifies the negative type of reverse osmosis that occurred as borders between film industries fell: It’s a Chinese production informed by international tropes of the most generic kind. Essentially, it’s an imitation James Bond adventure that trots around the globe, stringing together diminishing-returns action setpieces with boilerplate dialogue and an absolute minimum of plot and characterization.
The world tour begins in London, where swarthy baddies attempt to kidnap businessman Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou) during a Spring Festival parade. Good thing that Vanguard, a covert security organization armed and outfitted with the latest in hi-tech weaponry and surveillance, is on the case. Agents and best buds Lei Zhenyu (Yang Yang) and Zhang Kaixuan (Ai Lun) try to stop the abduction, leading to the film’s first major martial-arts brawl in a restaurant kitchen—a serviceable but thoroughly familiar setting for such a set-to, and a sign of pedestrian things to come. During this fight, Ai does some of Chan’s old shtick, like shaking his hand in momentary pain after walloping a bad guy, since Chan himself spends this operation sitting behind a desk as bespectacled Vanguard boss Tang Huanting.
Tang gets to come out and play when the scene switches to Africa, where Qin’s daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan) frolics with her digitally created lion pal Charlie in a scene apparently inspired by a classic moment from Mighty Peking Man, and is fighting the local poachers—mostly on social media, it seems. This nasty group joins up with the lead baddies in their attempts to grab Fareeda, who has a 007-ish vehicle and gadgets of her own and bonds romantically with Lei while looking at pretty birdies during a break in the mayhem. It all culminates in an entertainingly ridiculous, CGI-enhanced pursuit down raging rapids—the last time Vanguard is any honest fun.
From there, we jump to the thoroughly hackneyed storm-the-impregnable-fortress portion of the movie on the villains’ home turf in a tactfully fictionalized Middle Eastern country, complete with caravans of vehicles driving through bazaars, endless machine-gun fire and world-music wailing on the soundtrack, topped by half-hearted Fast & Furious-esque car stunts. Here and elsewhere, Vanguard is overly dependent on digital effects that render the action cartoony and weightless, the only intentional humor appearing when Chan injects occasional slapstick into his too-infrequent brawls and in a couple of visual jokes, such as a small fleet of Vanguard espionage drones that actually look like bees. Throughout, the martial arts deliver brief jolts of excitement, but are neither inventive nor extensive enough to dispel the increasingly plodding conventionality in the story (scripted by Tong himself). The lack of genuine rooting interest is particularly acute given that the dramatic “highlights” (a disarm-the-bomb scene, etc.) feel dropped in by rote, and the antagonists’ performances are uniformly lousy.
By the time Vanguard arrives at its final act in Dubai, it has come to seem far longer than its 107 minutes. The last 10 of those consist of the credits, most of which are accompanied by the usual outtakes of Chan and others getting injured doing their stunts—and one particularly serious moment in which the star almost drowned during that river sequence. It’s nice to see him as committed as ever to giving his all to a project—even if, at age 66, his all isn’t what it once was—though the length of those credits indicate the misplaced priorities here. One of Vanguard’s final shots looks like it cost more than all of Drunken Master or Project A, proving once again that money is no substitute for imagination in both plotting and action. Even (especially?) at this late stage of his career, Chan and his fans deserve better.