The simplest way to describe writer/director Stanley Tong’s (Rumble in the Bronx) latest film Vanguard is a mixture of the Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, and The Expendables series of films. You don’t even have to squint to see it as Tong’s assembled a group of well-known Chinese action stars to pose as an international security organization who utilizes everything from melee weapons to the latest in high-tech gear to save the day. Originally intended to release in China in time for the Chinese New Year in January but having been put on halt due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s now getting the chance to see the light of day in the U.S. via a limited release in November. The good news is that the film is pure, unadulterated escapism that plays with genre to some delight. The bad news is that it’s definitely not worth a theater ticket.
When accountant Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou) is targeted by a group of merchs known as the Arctic Wolves, security team Vanguard springs into action to protect the endangered man and his family. Led by Tanh Huating (Jackie Chan), the security force sends out its best people — Lei Zhenyu (Yang Yang), Zhang Kaixuan (Ai Lun), and Miya (Mu Qimiya) — to rescue Mr. Qin and his wife from the merchs. But protecting him doesn’t stop with a simple retrieval job, as the Artic Wolves shift their focus to Mr. Qin’s activist daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan) working in Africa, in an effort to draw the man out. What seems daunting at first is merely another day at the office for Vanguard as they suit up for a mission that takes them beyond the borders of China into Africa and beyond.
With Jackie Chan headlining Vanguard, audiences already have some sense of what to expect before the film begins: big action, natural comedy, and crazy stunts. For the most part, Vanguard delivers on that expectation. Over the course of the 107-minute runtime, the audience is treated to four different action set pieces within completely different countries, each one creatively utilizing the advantages of the terrain. This allows Tong to flex his muscles by staging stunts that are both physically and technologically interesting, all while keeping the narrative logic flowing naturally. Whether by accident or design, each sequence allows for a different member of the cast to shine so that there’s not a single headliner (the single headliner being a rather terrible aspect of the aforementioned series). When you buy a ticket to see a Mission: Impossible flick, you’re not just paying to see Tom Cruise nearly kill himself, you’re also paying to see Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, and others try to kill themselves, yet it’s almost entirely the Tom Cruise Show. Same thing with Fast & Furious, it all centers on Vin Diesel. Considering Chan plays the leader of Vanguard, the story could absolutely focus on him, but the group has a more democratic approach, electing to have the best person handle the situation. We do, of course, get some classic Chan moments, but he’s not the one the audience will end up falling for. In fact, of the entire cast, the two that absolutely steal the spotlight action-wise are Qimiya and Zhenyu. Each offers something fresh and instills the kind of youthful creative energy to their fights that audiences are used to seeing from Chan. This should come as no surprise as a peek under the hood reveals Guanhua Han as the stunt coordinator, a man who’s worked with Chan on films like Shanghai Knights (2003), Rush Hour 3 (2007), The Spy Next Door (2010), and more, not to mention a little charismatic non-Chan film from 2010 called Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Honestly, it was kind of refreshing to see a team described as being the best of the best not only function that way in combat (they almost take out the bad guys too easily), but also as ambassadors of their homeland. Vanguard actually works with other countries, abiding by their rules and regulations, and not one of them gets huffy or puffy about it. In American-centric films, there’s always that one “rogue” character — re: nearly every Mission: Impossible film — who does things their way and barely makes things right; whereas, in Vanguard, teamwork is tantamount to success.
Where things come off the rails a bit is more in the technical department. One can forgive subtitles that are so tiny and poorly presented that the white text is nearly invisible against the background as there’s enough context via performance to understand the emotional stakes within each set piece. One can even forgive the overuse of CG as a replacement for the animal life featured in Africa or to create some of the bolder automotive sequences: each of these fall short of “laughably bad” and up the overall camp-factor of Vanguard. Not every film can have the budget to do a Fast Five-like (2011) climax, but if you’re going to try, perhaps save some coin to make it less cheap looking. One might even forgive poor audio mixing which caused any bombastic moments to absolutely redline, resulting in some momentarily uncomfortable feedback. (The film was watched via a screener link and the audio settings displayed no issue when projecting other content before or after watching Vanguard.) What is more difficult to look past are the zero-sense choices the characters tend to make. There’s a scene where a character, completely untrained or otherwise useful in the fight, demands to get involved and is allowed to do so. The motivation of the character makes sense as the situation is tense and peril is certain for those the character cares for, yet they should not get involved from a character perspective and their doing so does not in any way help the narrative. Despite this, the character does and it proves ultimately unnecessary as their companion, who should be involved, is involved anyway. One can only surmise that the inclusion is to create tension for the audience — “oh, no! [Redacted] could get hurt!” — except it is instead so unbelievably stupid as a character choice as to make reductive the slew of other strong choices the character had made up to that moment. Thankfully, this only happens with one character consistently and the rest are presented as the professionals they are.
Look, I’ve been a fan of Jackie Chan’s since Rumble in the Bronx. I’ve enjoyed his work before he was a global sensation and after. Vanguard will sit comfortably on your shelf next to any other Chan film, despite his relative low presence and impact on the story. Frankly, it’s the kind of popcorn-munching, candy-shoveling spectacle we can use right now to remind ourselves that not everything sucks due to a global pandemic. The shame of things is that the very end of the film is obviously intended as a celebration of 2020 and hindsight is a monster right now. Despite that downer, Vanguard is good fun whose technical, budgetary, and character issues won’t fully tarnish the experience. If getting to the theater to see Vanguard is not viable or preferable right now, there are already intentions of a VOD and digital release in 2021.
In select theaters November 20th, 2020.
Available on VOD and digital TBD 2021.
Head to the official website to learn more about Vanguard.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.