The schizophrenic tone of The Bodyguard is apparent from the film’s set-up: after a patriotic credits sequence that shows recruits of China’s Central Security Bureau in training, we find retired operative Ding (Sammo Hung) living in his hometown of Suizhen on the Russian border where he witnesses local mobster Choi (Deng Chao) commit a vicious murder. Unfortunately, the onset of dementia prevents Ding from identifying the guilty party in the subsequent police line-up. This serious preamble abruptly cuts to a burst of cute, childlike animation as Ding is further introduced from the perspective of youngster Cherry (Jacqueline Chan Pui-yin) who sees the former solider as ‘a kind-hearted but hard-headed, fat old man’ who prefers to keep to himself. Back in the director’s chair for the first time in almost 20 years, Hung never finds the right balance between violence and sentimentality, resulting in an unsatisfying action-drama which never seems entirely sure of its intended audience.
Such inconsistency is all the more frustrating when one considers that Hung is working from a tried-and-tested premise that has proved particularly fruitful of late for veteran actors. Ding leads a lonely existence which is occasionally enlivened by regular visits from his neighbors, the romantically inclined Miss Park (Li Qinqin), and Cherry, who has volatile relationship with her degenerate gambler father Li (Andy Lau). In order to settle his debt to Choi, the nimble but not particularly bright Li goes to Vladivostok to steal a bag of jewels from a Russian gang, but complications ensue and the single father ends up on the run from two criminal organizations. Ding sees the mischievous but well-meaning Cherry as a surrogate for the granddaughter that he lost years before during a walkabout and vows to protect her at any cost, with flashes of his former physical prowess demonstrated when Choi’s henchmen turn up at Ding’s door to kidnap the girl as leverage in their hunt for Li.
Anyone who has caught a glimpse of the film’s marketing materials – which promised Hung in action with the martial arts legend flanked by Hong Kong stars of multiple generations, such as Yuen Biao, Eddie Peng, and Yuen Wah – will be disappointed to learn that these esteemed ‘co-stars’ are actually relegated to the sidelines, or merely assigned pointless cameos. Instead, much of the drama revolves around the bond between Ding and Cherry. The young girl sees Ding as a source of friendship and mirth, while the former operative is happy to oblige for as long as he can, even though he projects an air of reluctance. Given that Ding has never forgiven himself for losing his granddaughter and finds it difficult to interact with others, it’s possible that Ding may even welcome the gradual loss of memory as a means of escaping from guilt and avoiding obligatory social niceties. In terms of its western counterparts, The Bodyguard is more akin to Gran Torino (2008) than Taken (2008) with a melancholic sense of life winding down as its ageing protagonist tries to make amends for past mistakes before his condition robs him of the chance for redemption.
Aside from an extended sequence in which Li flees with the jewels (which appears to have been designed to boost the screen time of Lau, who produced through his company Focus Films), the main action set piece is a gambling den brawl between Ding and a gang of Choi’s henchmen. Hung attempts to keep things fairly grounded and true to character: a half-aware Ding fights the bad guys by using muscle memory, dispatching each opponent with locks and unfussy body blows before taking on three burly Russians. However, it doesn’t help that much of this showdown is covered in cramped medium shots and close-ups, with the interchangeable goons almost respectfully waiting for their turn to be knocked out by a senior citizen.
Hung’s heavyset presence is entirely suited to the lead role, filling the screen with pathos and force, but the rambunctious directorial personality of such classics as Wheels on Meals (1984) and Pedicab Driver (1989) has been muted to the point that the pedestrian proceedings here evidence little authorial signature. As the script by Jiang Jun has clearly been tailored to the sensibilities and values of the mainland market, it may have been better for Hung to approach The Bodyguard as a vehicle for his often under-utilised acting talents while holding out for more inspired material with which to launch a comeback behind the camera.