Judge Josh Rode played the role of a bodyguard once. His only line was, "Ungh," just before he died.
"A nation cannot progress without sacrifice. The road to modernization is paved with blood. That blood is called revolution." -Sun Yat-sen
In the very early twentieth century Sun Yat-sen led a revolution in China that ended four thousand years of Imperial rule, via one dynasty or another (or another or another…). Along the way there were doubtless many attempts on his life. Bodyguards and Assassins doesn't claim to be based on history or any real events, but that's no reason to believe its story couldn't have happened.
Facts of the Case
Li Yue-tang (Xueqi Wang, Warriors of Heaven and Earth) is the Bill Gates of 1906 Hong Kong, but his loyalty to (and, more to the point, his ongoing financial support of) his revolutionist friend Chen Xiao-bai (Tony Leung Ka Fai, Bruce Lee, My Brother) drags him into the brewing rebellion against the Qing Dynasty. When Chen is kidnapped, Li is thrust into the position of organizing and mobilizing a hodge-podge group of miscreants, including a beggar, a compulsive gambler, a street merchant, and his own son to protect revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (Hanyu Zhang, The Message) from governmental assassins.
First 13 Assassins, now Bodyguards and Assassins. Okay, technically Bodyguards was released in theaters half a year before its Japanese counterpart, but still. What's with assassin movies waiting until the film is half over before turning on the action?
What we get for the first half of Bodyguards is an expose of a man who tries to straddle an increasingly pointed fence between his corrupt government and his conscience. Li Yeu-tang wants to be involved in the revolution, but he doesn't want to lose his money or his place in society or his family. He invites the chief of police to a party yet owns a print shop that distributes anti-government propaganda. He wants to support Chen Xiao-bai but doesn't want his only son to be involved.
When he is forced to choose, however, he throws himself completely into the revolution, recruiting everyone he knows to help protect Sun Yat-sen. This includes Lau Yuk-bak (Leon Lai, Three), a beggar who has drugged himself to the edge of oblivion but who was once a martial arts master, and Wang Fu-ming (Mengke Bateer, who had a very brief stint in the NBA), a partially-trained Shaolin monk who sells stinky tofu. Yum.
Also joining the fray for their own personal reasons are stage actress Fang Hong (Chinese pop star Yuchun Li in her first-ever role, although I didn't realize she was female until someone made reference to her as such because she spends the movie dressed from head to toe in frumpy attire and a really ugly hat) and Sum Chung-yang (Donnie Yen, Ip Man), an ex-policeman whose compulsive gambling has lost him everything he has ever held dear.
The film sets up the showdown between these "bodyguards" and the Qing assassins through a series of acts that correspond with the days leading up to Sun's arrival. While this does build a feeling of tension leading to that last fateful day, there is generally very little action in these early scenes. Although that's not necessarily bad. We get some very good acting, major character development (when's the last time you could say that about a martial arts film?), and backstories on the major players which range from interesting to just kinda stupid.
When the payoff finally comes, it does so with a vengeance. Each of the bodyguards gets his (or her) moment to shine, which is great because it makes every one of them pivotal to the film. The best battle of the movie (and possibly the best I've ever seen), between Yen and American MMA champion Cung Le (Tekken), is not the climax, which seems odd for a martial arts film but fits the "this isn't really a true kung fu movie" direction of this one to a T.
The beggar's battle against what seems about 150 bad guys is good too, but is hampered by too many close-ups, a lot of repetition, and the only bad make-up of the film. Instead of bleeding wounds, it looks like Lai is wearing a black and white outfit with red dye on the sleeves to denote where he has been injured.
Since the movie doesn't want to be a run-of-the-mill martial arts film, it needs a solid emotional payoff, and it delivers there as well. Li Yeu-tang has to wonder if the revolution was really worth all the pain and I wondered the same thing, especially given the benefit of historical hindsight. It was only about ten years after the revolution inspired by Sun Yet-sen that his ideas of aiming for democracy and a modern state began to crumble behind the power of the May Fourth Movement and the push toward Communism which has not proven to be much less cruel than your typical old-style dynasty.
Sorry, didn't mean for politics to enter the conversation. Where am I? Oh, tech stuff. The 2.35:1 transfer is clean with a clear picture even in the darker scenes. Colors pop nicely, especially the red streamers that the assassins inexplicably use for rappelling from rooftops. The 5.1 Mandarin track is strong but if you're a fan of dubbing (or at least not a fan of subtitles) you'll be stuck with a Dolby 2.0 stereo dub track.
Speaking of dubbing, this film has the best lip-synchronization I've seen in a long time, although the squeaky voice chosen for Fang Hong is a tad annoying at times and Wang Fu-ming's dub sounds a lot like they channeled the ghost of Andre the Giant. The dubbing adds some nice touches to the dialogue without being at all intrusive.
The extras are repetitive, and I mean that literally. They use the exact same quotes with the exact same clips from the film multiple times throughout the behind-the-scenes vignettes and the cast and crew interviews. The actors talk a bit about their characters, but not to any great detail. The most interesting parts are about the Hong Kong circa 1906 set that they built exclusively for this movie. It is absolutely astounding and I wish they had gone into more detail about it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It seems strange that the Chinese government could only afford one rifle. If all of the assassins had rifles, they could have stayed on the rooftops and simply shot the entire convoy of rickshaws to ribbons in a matter of seconds without having to face what turned out to be ridiculously well-trained ragamuffins in hand-to-hand combat. Just sayin'.
Also, what kind of name is Bodyguards and Assassins? I mean, really? You couldn't come up with something less…clunky? What was wrong with its old title, Dark October?
Sorry, just had to get that off my chest.
Dark Oct…I mean, Bodyguards and Assassins is a step up from your normal kung fu/martial arts film. It builds actual characters we care about and has a reasonably complex and engaging plot. That, combined with the extended race-and-chase interspersed with great fighting to finish the film, makes it all worth it in the end.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
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