1906. Starting with the country's first political assassination in 1901, civil unrest spreads throughout China. An underground movement of citizens known as the United League of China looks to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and bring democracy to the country, with Dr. Sun Wen leading the charge. News spreads that Dr. Wen is making a trip from Tokyo to Hong Kong that could set everything in motion, and a laundry list of corrupt Chinese generals and assassins converge on Hong Kong with the intent of wiping out Dr. Sun before he can communicate with a group of the League's most powerful members, and put an end to the revolution.
Bodyguards and Assasins is an ambitious movie, to be sure; its 140-minute runtime and slow build almost suggest a miniseries rather than a feature film, beginning with "episodes" timed by the days leading up to Sun Wen's arrival and culminating in a massive series of fights and confrontations over the course of Sun Wen's visit. It focuses on no less than nine central characters and at least three or four major supporting characters, all of whom are connected and related in various ways. Unfortunately, the film is plagued with repetitive writing, dragging pacing, and a serious case of melodramatics, all over characters we haven't invested in as much as the movie would like to think. Worse, the film's action is only intermittently exciting thanks to modern nonsense like quick-cutting and CG blood.
Based on the packaging, the film is being marketed to US audiences and martial arts fans on the backs of Donnie Yen and Cung Le, but Yen is only one of the film's main characters, and far from the focus of the movie, and Le is a glorified thug. The two have a major fight scene at the beginning of the third act, so fans of either performer (or both) won't be entirely let down, but the film's real focus is on Li Yu-tang (Xueqi Wang), the owner of the China Daily newspaper and a secret contributor to the revolution. Mostly, he shows support by helping Chen Xiao-Bai (Tony Leung Ka Fai), the Hong Kong chairman of the United League, but friction grows between the two when Yu-Tang discovers his son Li Chong-guang (Bo-Chieh Wang) has become a revolutionary himself through Xiao-Bai's teachings.
The real story of the film is Chong-guang's refusal to follow his father's orders to stand down in the face of something important, and Yu-tang's hesitant but growing participation as a rebel in the public eye, but the screenplay is uneven and repetitive, hammering the nail of Chong-guang's defiance over and over again, while Yu-tang flip-flops from supporter to background player depending on the scene. An early dramatic beat has Yu-tang discovering Chong-guang distributing United League flyers. Yu-tang yells at him to go home where it's safe, but Chong-guang refuses to sit on the sidelines. In case the argument in the scene isn't clear, the movie offers the same scene at least two more times, with Xiao-Bai and later the family servant Ah-si (Nicholas Tse) substituted for Yu-tang, with each one doing more to grind the movie to a halt.
Repetitions like this could probably be forgiven if director Teddy Chan and editors Derek Hui and Wong Hoi had a sense of urgency and/or pacing, but scenes like this drag on and on, long after the viewer has figured out and become bored with where the scene is going. The build-up on the final night before the day of Dr. Wen's arrival is interminable, electing to show every single character solemnly getting ready for the big day. At least two romantic side plots, involving Ah-si and Yen's character Sum Chung-yang fail to generate the intended connection to the characters because both of the women involved are sorely underdeveloped (to the point where my extensive notes don't even have a name for the character formerly involved with Yen -- and she's Yu-tang's wife).
The movie's big fight sequences start out intermittently exhilarating, but again, the pacing cripples the movie. An hour of action may sound like an awesome idea, like a great payoff for anyone who remains patient through the movie's setup, but there are several issues that prevent the sequence from being satisfying, Mostly, the action itself is frequently underwhelming thanks to a poor blend of styles that often takes away from the stunts being performed. Some sequences will use true, crystal-clear motion picture slow-motion to show a cool trick, with plenty of space around the characters to see what's happening, and then the next shot will be shot with low-budget, blurry slow-motion from a poor angle. Worse, the film bends over backward to make each and every climactic fight deeply dramatic, meaning lots and lots of crying and screaming and slow-motion deaths. Chan even eulogizes each with a short on-screen bio, just to make sure the audience knows which character is kicking the bucket at a given moment.
After all the dust has settled, Bodyguards and Assassins is a respectable effort that bites off more than it can chew. The historical tale the movie is trying to tell is large enough without an overabundance of characters weighing it down, and regular old miscalculation hamstrings its attempts at drama and tension. This is the kind of movie that wants the payoff to the action to be tears welling up in a character's eyes...a noble goal, perhaps, but one that the filmmakers can't achieve.
Like most martial arts epics, there are a lot of banners and rippling robes on the cover of Bodyguards and Assassins, which downplays the men running with the cart in the background over Donnie Yen about to kick some would-be assassins in the foreground. It's nice, but potentially a bit misleading. There is no insert in the eco-case, and the whole thing has a foil slipcover with identical artwork.
The Video and Audio
Vivendi's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is fantastic. The film's slightly soft focus lends itself to DVD, exhibiting a surprising amount of detail and texture in close-ups, and the movie's colors are vivid and pleasing. I caught the occasional digital halo around an object or two, a few blacks might crush slightly, and sometimes the wider shots look mighty mushy, but for the vast majority of the runtime, this is an excellent transfer. The image is complemented by a solid Mandarin 5.1 audio track that deftly juggles the film's score, dialogue, and the whips, kicks and punches of the film's extensive action finale, spreading the action across the soundfield in a pleasing manner. This is a big production, and the audio feels big, which is a bit of a relief after so many direct-to-video and low-budget features with weak mixes. English subtitles are provided.
"The Making of Bodyguards and Assassins" (33:25) is a mediocre five-part behind-the-scenes featurette. Quality is about average when it comes to making-of featurettes: lots of behind-the-scenes, more than a handful of clips from the finished film, and mildly diverting interviews from the cast and crew, but for me, part of the appeal of middling talking head featurettes is the ability to throw them on in the background of some household chore, which is not possible when the majority of the material is in a foreign language. The most interesting of the featurettes focuses on the massive sets built to recreate Hong Kong circa 1906, something I honestly never even considered while watching the movie -- the sets look fantastic. Also of interest is the bald cap makeup appliances for most of the actors. A series of equally middling extended interviews (10:36) with Leon Lai, Wang Xuegi, Tony Ka-fai Leung, and Peter Chan are also included, and the disc label (the art on the actual disc) has a QR code that will take you to additional online features (I didn't test it).
The disc opens with a compilation trailer for True Legend, Bodyguards and Assassins, OUtcast, Fire of Conscience, The Pack, and Clash, followed by the full theatrical trailer for True Legend. An international trailer for Bodyguards and Assasins is also included.
Bodyguards and Assassins deserves an A for ambition and a C- for everything else, failing to create truly compelling characters and fumbling the pacing. Fans of Yen or Le might want to give it a rent, but I don't think anyone's lives will be lessened if they just skip it entirely.
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