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 Bod&As-blustars 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 trueBod&As-01, 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.Bod&As-02

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 tBod&As-03his 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.