A solid emotional foundation anchors action-drama “Bodyguards and Assassins,” a satisfying mix of politics, personal sacrifice and death-or-glory combat centered on an imagined assassination attempt on Chinese revolutionary hero Sun Yat-sen in Hong Kong, 1906. Delivering a final hour of good but not great mayhem, as a mixed bag of fictional patriots shield Sun from scores of Imperial Army killers, helmer Teddy Chen’s (“The Accidental Spy”) star-studded ensembler reps a strong first effort for ambitious shingle Cinema Popular.
Biz has been smashing across Asia since the pic’s mid-December release, with more than $40 million grossed to date in China alone. Though a big breakout beyond the region looks unlikely, the pic should garner respectable returns in niches and ancillary.
Driven by Hong Kong producer-director Peter Chan (“The Warlords”) and mainland multihyphenate Huang Jianxin (“The Founding of a Republic”), and aiming to become China’s answer to DreamWorks, Cinema Popular has started in the right gear with “Bodyguards.” A big-budgeter (reportedly $23 million) with broad mainstream appeal, the pic is a clarion call to Chinese patriotism across political and geographical divides.
Giving depth and substance to a large roster of characters, the screenplay, credited to four writers, cleverly stashes Sun Yat-sen — revered in all Chinese quarters as the “Father of the Nation” — out of sight for most of the duration. Instead, it’s the aura of the man fighting to free China from a corrupt monarchy and forge a republic that inspires citizens, ranging from a tycoon to a street bum, to lay down their lives if necessary.
Plot is basically a grand-scale take on Bruce Willis starrer “16 Blocks,” about a cop escorting a valuable prisoner downtown amid a hail of bullets. Sun (referred to here as “Sun Wen,” the name given to him at school) is due in Hong Kong for secret talks with leaders of provincial resistance movements. The mission requires Sun to negotiate 13 blocks of the British Colony and survive the attentions of Yan Xiaoguo (Hu Jun, “Red Cliff”), a Qing dynasty commander sent to H.K. with sidekick Sa Zhenchan (Cung Le, Vietnamese world kick-boxing champion) and hundreds of crack troops.
Apart from two early shows of strength by Yan’s goons, the first hour quietly and effectively establishes character profiles of locals who form a bodyguard detail for Sun. Although no single dominant figure emerges, those at the forefront number Prof. Chen Xiaobai (Tony Leung Ka-fai), a newspaper editor and committed revolutionary; Li Yuetang (Wang Xueqi), a tycoon who funds Chen’s efforts; Li’s 17-year-old son, Li Chungguang (Taiwanese newcomer Wang Bo-chieh), and Sum Chung-yang (Donnie Yen, “Ip Man”), a gambler whose ex-wife, Yuet-yu (Fan Bingbing), is now Li Sr.’s concubine.
The only real script weakness is the repetition of what’s at stake. Speeches about how “China’s future is threatened” and “millions of people are depending on us” are given a few times too many.
In “Dirty Dozen” fashion, the ad hoc crew is rounded out by down-and-out bum Lau Luk-yak (Leon Lai, with unconvincing hair and makeup); teen opera diva Fang Hong (mainland popster Li Yuchun, showing capable martial-arts moves); and rickshaw driver Ah-si (H.K. heartthrob Nicholas Tse). Last but not least, there’s tofu-vending giant Wang Fuming, played by basketball star Mengke Bateer, who debuts impressively and shows promise of becoming China’s equivalent of late French wrestler/thesp Andre the Giant.
Sparse action to this point may make those who’ve come to see only chopsocky a little restless, but most auds will appreciate the relationships mapped out between characters on both sides of the battle. Most potent of these is the master-student history of Prof. Chen and henchman Yan, now the deadliest of enemies.
Having virtually every role played by bankable names from the mainland and H.K. does no harm, either. Standouts in a uniformly fine cast are Wang Xueqi, who brings gravitas to a stern patriarch whose support for the cause is tested, and Leung as the intellectual coming to terms with blood and violence as necessary tools of political change. Hu expertly underplays the chief villain.
Played out in real time on the biggest walk-through set ever constructed in China (the pic was shot entirely at a studio outside Shanghai), the final 60 minutes follow the real Sun and a decoy rickshaw hurtling around the city while assassins pop out from every nook and cranny. The nonstop action is marred only by rapid-fire closeups in fights — including a terrific battle involving Donnie Yen and Cung Le — that beg to be left uninterrupted by such distractions.
Color-desaturated lensing by veteran d.p. Arthur Wong applies an appropriately gritty veneer to exteriors, with slightly warmer tones showing in interiors. With its stunning streetscape centerpiece, Kenneth Mak’s production design is immaculate in every detail, even down to realistic weathering. Score by Chan Kwong-wing and Peter Kam runs the gamut from traditional drumming to contempo electronica, yet suits the mood wherever it goes. The rest of technical package is topnotch.
For the record, publicity material on the movie sets the action in 1905, whereas onscreen text all says 1906. Chinese title literally means “October Besieged City.”