When one time real-life political leader Dr. Sun Yat-sen (played by Zhang Hanyu) arrives in Hong Kong to discuss revolutionary plans to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, a motley crew of bodyguards consisting of workers and beggars (including Donnie Yen, Leon Lai and Nicholas Tse) are banded together to stop an assassination attempt on the radical leader and protect him at all costs.
A film with a behind-the-scenes story possibly more exciting than the end product itself, Teddy Chen’s Bodyguards and Assassins suffered multiple problems throughout it’s long (almost ten years) production history, detailed in the aptly-titled companion documentary Development Hell. With eight Hong Kong Film Awards under its belt, two Asian Film Awards, two Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards and one Golden Horse, it seems the end-product must have been worth the trouble…right ?
This is, sadly, only partly the case. Bodyguards and Assassins is hard not to compare to the previous year’s Ip Man (review here). Both films try hard to give us historical grandeur and lavish cinematography backed with explosive-martial arts sequences and satisfying drama. Teddy Chen balances, sometimes uneasily, the rich emotional beats and the historical depth of the aforementioned film but substitutes charged, meaty fight scenes with light, popcorn action. The film is split into two clear halves: the first hour or so works solely on setting up and introducing all the characters, explaining whats at stake and offering the viewer a dramatic template for the second hour to storm in feet kicking, both fists swinging and sprinkle some tension on to some full-bodied action. However, it does seem the action highs of the second half don’t come close to the dramatic force of the first. The fight scenes range from choppy, unrealistic and CGI enhanced to some pretty nicely choreographed work with minimal use of wires. Donnie Yen shows off his stuff and is the real heavy-hitter of the cast and you can feel this in his movements, whilst the less-athletic players such as Leon Lai rely too heavily on wires, coming off looking stilted. This makes the film ever so slightly underwhelming at times in the action department, but for the most part, things stay entertaining.
In terms of the film’s advertising campaign, Donnie Yen is often billed as the star. However, in reality, he’s a cog, albeit a vital one, in the rich ensemble cast the film boasts. Most of the cast certainly get a chance to shine (including Eric Tsang in a now commonplace dramatic role for the comedian), but the emphasis of the plot is mostly placed on the faceless Sun Wen and the relationship between Tony Leung Ka-fai as the head revolutionary and Li Yutang (played by fairly unknown but very strong Mainland Chinese actor Wang Xueqi) a financial backer to the revolutionaries who finally officially declares his support and rallies the group of bodyguards to protect Sun Yat-sen. We also have Zhou Yun, John Shum and the eternal Simon Yam rounding off the cast-list.
Although slightly overlong and somewhat too glossy in the the action department for most martial arts fans, Bodyguards and Assassins‘ unique narrative setup may put off some, but the film once known as Dark October in its planning stages is an award-winning, crowd pleasing, box-office smash and, for all the hard work that went into the film and after years of trials and tribulations, maybe that’s enough.
Tom Kent-Williams is a writer, reviewer and co-host at the Podcast On Fire Network currently residing in Birmingham, England. He has been in love with Asian cinema since seeing Akira for the first time and has a slight man-crush on Chow Yun-fat. Hong Kong cinema floats his boat big time, along with synthpop, classic gaming and cups of tea in large mugs.