Few stars have worked harder to give audiences pleasure over a long haul than Jackie Chan. But lately, his screen appearances have been those of the elder statesman still trotted out to nominally preside over expensive but flavorless official diplomatic functions you doubt even he relishes. The newest case in point reunites him with director Stanley Tong, a sporadic collaborator since “Supercop” nearly three decades ago.
That movie was inspired escapism. “Vanguard” is just the clock-punching variety, big, flashy and generic in all save its silliest excesses. Like several other recent mainland China megaproductions, this action spectacular seems hellbent on containing every possible marketable genre element, with no concern for whether they cohere or cancel one another out.
Delayed from a planned January home-turf launch as one of the first COVID release casualties, it proved a notable box-office disappointment (particularly after the last Chan-Wong joint, “Kung Fu Yoga”) upon finally opening Sept. 30. Gravitas Ventures’ release to 1,500-plus U.S. screens this weekend would’ve been no biggie a year ago, but in shutdown context, it’s a major leap. Prints will be more or less equally divided between original-language and dubbed, though even in the Mandarin version there’s plenty of (awkward and phonetic) English dialogue.
Qin (Jackson Lau) is a wealthy businessman who got involved with a duplicitous partner he ratted out to the authorities, resulting in the WMD-trading bad guy getting killed. So now that hombre’s son Omar (Eyad Hourani) wants Qin dead, as well as the return of some pricey shared assets. Getting out of this immediate fix requires the services of CEO Tang’s (Chan) Vanguard, an “international private security firm.” That large global operation somehow is entirely unknown to the major-league villains Qin and his wife are promptly saved from, amid a Chinese New Year celebration in London.
Thwarted, it figures that Omar and company will next try to kidnap Qin’s daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan), an independent wildlife-preservation activist currently living in a tree like MGM Tarzan and consorting with cuddly lions on a first-name basis. Tang brings along his A team, including veteran Kaixuan (Ai Lun), relative rookie Lei (Yang Yang) and lovely-but-lethal Miya (Mu Qimiya), arriving in the nick. This melee culminates in bullets and kickboxing while river-rafting on rapids en route to a giant waterfall, from which ludicrousness Fareeda and Lei are successfully nabbed. To get them back, the good guys must soldier on to an Arabic desert fortress and then Dubai, where yet more absurdly overblown action setpieces occur.
“Vanguard” is fast-paced eye candy that’s as brainless as a video game, or rather several video games all mashed together. Alternately aiming for James Bond, Indiana Jones, superhero and commando-raid terrain, never clear for long just how seriously it means to take itself (a maudlin interlude is followed by stunts out of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”), the movie might’ve flown as a larky fantasy-adventure whatsit if it possessed any self-aware wit.
But no dice: The effect is instead of a large multicorporate investment in which every creative decision was made by conference call. In the mix, trained hyenas, bumblebee drones, flying hoverboards, solid-gold cars and other outlandish ideas smack up against terrorism, romancing ingenues and tourism plugs. (The ending plays like a straight-up commercial for Dubai, following a chase through a deluxe shopping mall.) No box goes unchecked, unfortunately. The result is lively but undeniably dopey fun that’s not so diverting you don’t wonder if you shouldn’t be doing something more worthy of your time. Ditto for the cast and crew.
“Vanguard” was duly filmed around the world, from the aforementioned locales to Zambia and India, but it often seems questionable where we are. Shots heavily worked in post-production, some janky CGI, and an almost garishly colorful overall aesthetic turn this cinematic travelogue into one big action theme park. That action is enthusiastic if frequently unconvincing, and only Chan is allowed to play it for comedy. Even so, the 66-year-old headliner isn’t exactly the central figure here. His role feels more like blatant international box office insurance, with second-billed Yang Yang doing more of the heavy lifting, and shooting, and kicking.
Perhaps the most straightfacedly nonsensical idea among many here is the core concept: Positing a private security firm of ex-military types as international do-gooders. Tang earnestly announces that “protecting the innocents is our paramount duty” — not the first or last Boy Scout-worthy motto spouted by his crew. (Chan also chides Qin that greed is bad, which seems odd coming from the chief of a company dedicated to safeguarding the planet’s economic elite.)
During the film’s course, these near-invincible champions of morality, weaponry, surveillance and miscellaneous fu confront various sub-villains played by Tomer Oz, Achabbakhe Bramine and Tam Khan. They’re all buried in a third-tier “Rest of Cast” list well into an 11-minute closing credit crawl that comes complete with outtakes. It goes on so long you begin realizing that while it was kinda fun while it lasted, “Vanguard’s” cliché-riddled dialogue, location-driven arbitrary plot and general air of conspicuous consumption to no meaningful end produce an immediate hangover of cinematic-junk-food regret. “Supercop” left you feeling you’d just had a great time. This time, you just feel you’ve been had.