Donnie Yen is a name that most Hong Kong film fans on this side of the Atlantic associate with an array of two-fisted action flicks that show off kung-fu and John Woo-ish gun-fu in equal measure. Bodyguards And Assassins might sound like another film to add to this stockpile by its title but it’s actually a noteworthy change of pace for the popular star. It is a large-scale historical melodrama with a huge ensemble cast of Hong Kong stars in which Yen plays a pivotal role but is not the main attraction. If you can put aside action potboiler expections, the results are often quite engrossing.
Bodyguards And Assassins takes place near the end of the Qing Dynasty: mainland forces are coming down hard on the rebels who want revolution and the occupying British forces in Hong Kong are content to look away and leave Chinese matters to the Chinese. Li Yu-Tang (Xueqi Wang) is a prominent businessman who is secretly slipping funds to his revolutionary friend Chen (Tony Ka-Fai Leung). Chen gets him reluctantly involved in a plot to help smuggle revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen into China for a clandestine meeting that could get a rebellion going.
Li tries to keep his son Chung-Guang (Bo-Chieh Wang) out of the events as he and Chen gather together a group of rebels to protect Sun, a group that includes corrupt, gambling cop Sum Chung-Yang (Donnie Yen). When the big day arrives, both Li and his rebels will learn the true, flesh-and-blood cost of sparking a revolution as they fight against terrible odds and make noble sacrifices to help a new China experience its birth.
Those looking for non-stop action will be stunned by Bodyguards And Assassins: it’s an epic in the 140 minute range that devotes its first 80 minutes to setting up the situation and the ensemble in an almost purely dramatic fashion. However, director Teddy Chan brings a sharp pace to the exposition and puts a focus on building drama the way a thriller director builds suspense. Xueqi Wang anchors the film nicely and Yen does well as a character in deep need of redemption. It doesn’t hurt that the film has an amazing backing cast of Hong Kong stars, including such old-school favorites as Simon Yam and Jacky Cheung. Leon Lai in particular is a standout as a former fighter turned homeless addict who answers to the call of revolution when he is needed.
The real action is held off until the film’s powerhouse final hour, which is chockablock with sword wielding gangs, vicious kung-fu experts, explosive devices and snipers of both the rifle and crossbow variety. The action choreography, crafted by a team that includes Tat Chiu Lee and Yen, has a visceral quality to it (especially in Yen’s hand to hand showdown with a rival assassin). It’s all exciting stuff that is strengthen by the story’s investment in the characters, thus allowing the deaths of the many heroic martyrs to pack a genuine punch.
In short, Bodyguards And Assassins is an interesting change of pace for martial arts film fans in search of a change of pace. Its shameless pursuit of melodrama might turn off some viewers but that same quality is likely to be appealing to another set of viewers: the emotions are as big as the action and mixed with a kind of nationalism expressed in terms that are subtle as a sledgehammer but totally heartfelt. If that mixture sounds intriguing to you, then it’s worth giving this pulse-pounding epic a shot.
Blu-Ray Notes: Shout! Factory picked this title up for U.S. release. The transfer makes the most of the epic visuals and both 5.1 Mandarin and 2.0 English tracks are included in lossless form. Extras consist of a series of brief interviews and featurettes that focus on different aspects of the production (the sets, the makeup, etc.). Most of these are too short to give you deep insight but they do a good job of letting the viewers understand the complexity of the project and the passion of the people involved. The longest and best segment is a piece around 20 minutes that focuses on the characters, with plentiful input from the actors who bring the roles to life. A trailer rounds things out.