Sammo Hung shows his soft and brutal sides in this action drama.
“Boss, that old man’s like the Kung Fu Panda.”
Frankly, that’s a line that can be used to describe Sammo Hung throughout his entire life. Never a truer word has been spoken of the surprisingly limber, overweight master of martial arts. And it’s probably the best line in this pretty dull, forgettable HK action drama about an ageing man, Ding (a very affable Hung) who has to protect a little girl, Cherry (Jacqueline Chan) from mobsters after her gambler dad (Andy Lau) gets into trouble with a gang. In a small Chinese town near the Russian border, Ding is an ex-military man in the early stages of dementia, who moved there after the disappearance of his granddaughter. His grandpaternal instincts are rekindled by Cherry, and the two share a strong bond. However, he must dust off his special forces training when mobsters come to kidnap Cherry.
Hung, at this point, has almost entirely removed himself from the stunt-heavy comedy action that defined his career for the first few decades. The Bodyguard, like many of Hung’s recent movies, is pretty harsh when it comes to fights. This isn’t a movie where he kicks a few people, knocks them out and lets the cops handle the rest. Here, we get daggers and scimitars being plunged through people. There’s a weird video-game x-ray bone-breaking graphic that’s as hard to watch as it is dumb. Sammo pulls some wrestling move on a thug, only for the action to slow down so we can see the guy’s spine break. That is super dark from a guy known for hiding from a Jiang Shi in ceiling rafters.
Vicious, hard-hitting violence is fine though. I don’t expect Hung to stick to doing one thing over and over his whole life, but it comes so quickly at once that we end up suffering from tonal whiplash whenever the scenes switch from a tender moment between Ding and Cherry, to Ding breaking fingers and strangling folk. It doesn’t help that Hung adopts a low-frame-rate-style of action scene that makes everything even more unsettling. Combine it with a heavy blend of close-ups and rapid editing within the fights, and we end up with a product that feels like two different films. I understand that Hung is getting on in years and can’t rely on endless attempts at the one perfect, extended stunt but the quick cuts give you the sense you’re watching a generic Hollywood action film.
Thankfully, even with its crazy pacing, the movie is shot well by a man who had a lot of experience in the field. It might be his first feature film as director in almost twenty years, but he hasn’t lost his touch and a deft visual eye guides us nicely through the slower scenes, which are all weirdly loaded with cameos from legendary Hong Kong actors and directors. Tsui Hark, Karl Maka and Dean Shek all appear as old men on a bench, while his fellow Peking Opera School friends Yuen Biao, Yuen Qiu and Yuen Wah all have tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles. It’s a weird, almost distracting little nod to his colleagues and peers, but the movie you’re being distracted from isn’t all that great, so it’s no major loss.
In fact the film’s most engaging aspect is its two stars. Jacqueline Chan does a great job as Cherry, bringing an innocence and charm that is lacking in this world of pretty nasty people. Hung himself delivers a very subdued performance filled with weakness and sadness which lets us identify with him a lot more than if he was a straight badass from beginning to end. Ding’s dementia is treated surprisingly sensitively, and he and Cherry share a very sweet chemistry that makes Ding’s decision to risk it all to save her both believable and quite touching. Ultimately, the grandfather-granddaughter relationship is the saving grace of what is otherwise a pretty generic action thriller.
There’s not a tonne more to say about this film. It could be argued that Hung’s decision to direct this picture in particular, where the focus on Ding’s ageing takes centre stage, might reflect how he sees himself, but it’s probably something of a stretch. It’s nice to see the guy take on roles with more heart, which allow themselves for pathos, and it could almost be said that The Bodyguard is something of a course-correction from Naked Soldier, with which it shares a couple of themes. It’s nothing great, but it might be worth it for the sleazy Andy Lau performance.
Verdict: It certainly tries to be different, but The Bodyguard never quite manages to hit the heights of Sammo’s better films.
Overall entertainment: 6/10
Sweet moments: Quite a few
Leg stabs: Apparently elicit no reaction from Sammo
Narrator: Sure, you can be in this too
Eddie Peng: Third billed in the trailer. Has a cameo role.
Forrest Gump: Putting Sammo’s face in important political moments during the opening scene sure is strange
The Bodyguard (2016)
Also known as: 特工爺爺: (Tè Gōng Yé Yé), My Beloved Bodyguard
Director: Sammo Hung
Writer: Kong Kwan
Sammo Hung – Ding
Jacqueline Chan – Cherry Li
Li Qinqin – Park Seon-nun
Andy Lau – Zheng Li
Zhu Yuchen – Park Chan-seun