VANGUARD (2020) review

Originally meant as a Chinese New Year 2020 film but pushed back eight months in the time of the Coronavirus, Stanley Tong’s Vanguard follows Tang (Jackie Chan), the head of an international security company named Vanguard, tasked with rescuing the kidnapped daughter (Xu Ruohan) of a businessman (Jackson Liu) whose past has caught up with him. From London to “Africa” (which in this film seems to be the name of a country) to Dubaï, flanked by his elite team that includes Mi Ya (Miya Muqi), Lei (Yang Yang) and Zhang (Allen Ai), Tang butts heads with a dangerous mercenary organization, the Arctic Wolves.

It’s difficult to come up with a cogent synopsis for Vanguard, simply because this is a film that was seemingly written by an overeager 9 year-old (actually 60 years old Stanley Tong), fresh off binging on Hollywood blockbusters. Much like in the dismal Kung Fu Yoga, his last collaboration with Jackie Chan before this one, Tong fails to give the plot any coherence, momentum or depth, instead organizing it around locations and action scenes. It’s as if his first draft had been:

“Action scene in London (Jackie not available) – Boat chase in Africa (include CGI lions? Hyenas? Both?) – Shootout in Saudi Arabia (must rewatch Operation Red Sea) – Car chase in Dubaï (cars made of gold?).”

and that from then on he had simply imagined a flimsy excuse for connective plot tissue (an amateurishly repetitive succession of kidnappings and rescues), not even bothering to flesh out any character in the least, apart from Allen Ai’s character being a widower and having a young daughter.

Jackie Chan himself looks shockingly bored, almost listless: his is almost a supporting role, a stern commander who occasionally cracks a half-assed joke. While his charisma is inextinguishable, and he can still do things nobody at 65 is supposed to be able to do, it’s a bit disheartening to see him display so little charm, humour, or poignancy. And the supporting cast doesn’t exactly pick up the slack: Yang Yang makes dishwater look thrilling, Miya Muqi is a sight to behold in action but doesn’t have the steely charisma of that other frequent leggy Jackie Chan collaborator, Zhang Lanxin. Allen Ai is fairly engaging but not given anything to stretch his comedic muscles, while Xu Ruohan annoys in that role typical of recent Jackie Chan globe-trotting adventures: the self-important millennial (see Yao Xingtong in Chinese Zodiac or Shang Yuxian in Kung Fu Yoga).

Still, this is a film written around its action scenes, and they rarely disappoint. The opening set piece in London is a fine starter: Jackie is absent but Yang and Ai acquit themselves solidly, especially the latter (though often doubled of course) in a wince-inducing kitchen fight. Then off to Africa, where Jackie joins the action: after some shenanigans with CGI felines (apparently a fixation of Stanley Tong’s after Kung Fu Yoga), there’s a thrilling boat and jet ski chase in rapids, with close-combat across boats; apart from some occasionally conspicuous green-screen work, it’s the kind of action scene where one is reminded of what made the Jackie Chan-Stanley Tong collaboration so potent, once upon a time. After that, the film goes Operation Red Sea (with added jetpacks) for a rescue shootout in a desert fortress, a glorious and relentless spectacle – if only it had been attached to a story worth caring about! Only the action finale is a let-down, with a risibly fake-looking CGI car chase (involving cars made of gold, because why not).

Long Story Short: Thrilling action scenes connected by the flimsiest of plots and carried by a largely bland cast, where even Jackie Chan looks bored. **1/2

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  1. ** 1/2 stars? I is shocked! ;-) :-P


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