Tuesday, May 31, 2016

SIFF 2016: 'The Bodyguard' (2016) Movie Review

Sammo Hung is a damn living legend. The 64-year-old martial artist and actor has been churning out hits since the 1960s, working with fellow badasses like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and the Shaw Brothers; and helming, starring in, and doing stunts and fight choreography for hundreds of films. His first directorial feature since 1997, The Bodyguard (also known as My Beloved Bodyguard), just made its North American premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival.

While moderately engaging and fun in the way many Sammo Hung movies are, The Bodyguard is, admittedly, not his finest hour. His age definitely shows through, especially in the way the fight scenes are shot and edited. Still far more badass than most of us will ever be, the majority of the hand-to-hand combat is filmed from the waist up, as opposed to wider frames that offer a full view of the action. Instead of letting sequences play out, letting the performers demonstrate their skill, cuts come quick. It’s like, one-two-three-edit, one-two-three-edit. Mixed with muddy, digital slow motion, this editing strategy is jarring, and the action often lacks grandeur and coherence.

There are still a few fantastic fights, though they pale in comparison to what he can do and has done. On a story front, The Bodyguard is pure Sammo Hung, sweet and funny and tinged with sadness. He plays Ding, a retired bodyguard, a former member of an elite branch of the military, who moves back to his hometown on the border between China and Russia. There he lives a lonely, largely solitary existence, dealing with the onset of dementia. He befriends a young girl, Cherry Li (Jacqueline Chan), and must protect her when her inveterate gambler father (Andy Lau) runs afoul of a ruthless cadre of on-the-rise gangsters, as well as the Russian mob, who are, of course, known for being such pleasant fellows.

The Bodyguard is a weird tonal mishmash where comedy butts against an unexpected grittiness. One moment everything is light and fluffy as Ding and Cherry fish in a local stream. It’s like, “Oh, that wacky Ding, he doesn’t remember his keys are around his neck so he has to pick the lock again.” Wah-wah. Then the next, a man gets beaten to death with hammers in graphic fashion.

It often feels like two different movies. One, a warm, if bittersweet, comedy; the other, a brutal, savage gangland tale. Darker and far bloodier than many classic Hong Kong martial arts films, these two sides never truly reconcile with one another, and the result is an uneven narrative.

This sensation of multiple competing movies spliced together isn’t helped by the fact that the plot is wildly overstuffed and busy to the point of distraction. The film cuts away to follow Cherry’s father as he pulls a job; there’s a thread about Ding’s landlady, who is also in love with him, and her cop son, which brings little to the table; and at one point there’s an unnecessary car chase for no apparent reason. Whenever any of these strands build up substantial momentum, The Bodyguard moves on to something else, creating a jerky, stop-and-go pace and flow.

Though he’s stayed as prolific as ever in front of the camera—seriously, just his acting credits on IMDb are up to 172, and that doesn’t count the various other roles he plays in the filmmaking process—it’s been 19 years since Sammo Hung directed a movie. The Bodyguard isn’t terrible by any means, and he’s as charming and pleasant as ever on screen, but in his canon, it doesn’t stand out, and there is unfortunately little to warrant seeking this out. [Grade: C]

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