Released concurrently on streaming services and in a handfuls of theaters in Mainland China, Tao Mengxi’s The Bravest Escort Group isn’t about a group of resourceful call-girls, contrary to what its clumsy title might lead you to believe. Rather, it follows a band of courageous bodyguards headed by Yang Liu An (Fan Siu Wong), and tasked by General Ma Bao (Ray Lui) with escorting his daughter Chen Yuanyuan (Lanni Li), concubine to the recently deceased Ming emperor Wu Sangui, and her son, the last hope of the Ming Dynasty, to safety. En route, they must fend off the attacks of enemy general Hala (Chen Zhi Hui), as well as Ma Bao’s treacherous second-in-command Ma Biao (Shi Yanneng), all the while being closely watched by the mysterious Zhu You (Andrew Lin). Though Wu Sangui and Chen Yuanyuan are real historical figures, the film plays fast, furious and loose with history, and presents itself like a late little brother to Teddy Chen’s Bodyguards and Assassins, on a wider geographical scale but – obviously – smaller spectacular scale.

It’s a film of two halves. The first one is barely watchable, a mess of clumsy and confusing exposition, childish comic relief and non-sequitur scenes. Familiar faces pop up for the sake of popping up: Ken Lo literally plays a disguise (Shi Hongbo’s character is so adept at disguising himself that when he does, he becomes Ken Lo), while Leung Kar Yan is in another film entirely, trying to convince his son Fan Siu Wong to get married to an ugly woman (Ha. Ha. Ha.). Handfuls of character are bombarded onto the screen in every new scene, with barely a clue given as to who they are, out of narrative ineptitude rather than mystery – Andrew Lin for example factors in the story in the most oblique and useless way (and he seems aware of that, giving a comically bored performance). Skirmishes remain anecdotal, double-crosses hopelessly abstruse, and though gorgeous location shooting along the Qingyi rivers pleases the eyes, stilted editing and sometimes shoddy sound contribute to a dishearteningly cheap atmosphere.

And then, the film almost miraculously pulls itself together; quite simply, it becomes an almost non-stop succession of fights, which not only blissfully breaks the monotony of the film’s first half, but also – and more importantly – serves to give a bit of depth and emotional resonance to some of the characters; well-choreographed heroics here succeed where poor writing failed. Shi Yanneng takes on multiple soldiers before fighting a blindfolded Ray Lui in a beautiful duel; Fan Siu Wong and Chen Zhi Hui get a gritty re-match after Ip Man, Xu Dongmei wreaks havoc with a bow (War of the Arrows-style), towering basketball player Sun Mingming (the world’s tallest in the sport, at 236cm) fights horsemen on equal footing… Action director Mu Ning’s choreography is hard-hitting but elegant and well-captured, either in long takes or with tighter (yet always clear) editing, depending on the performers.

Unfortunately, Che Yongli and Lanni Li are merely treated as exquisite window-dressing, despite their characters, a female bodyguard and a real-life concubine who played a key role during the fall of the Ming dynasty, holding much promise. Though he seems doomed to serve on the big screen and reign on streaming services, Fan Siu Wong is immensely likable, has solid presence and of course moves superbly; the film teases a sequel, and to see him headline a solid little franchise is a welcome prospect. Just bring back action director Mu Ning.

Long Story Short: The Bravest Escort Group is narratively inept, at times technically shoddy, yet packed with fine action scenes. **1/2

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