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Review: Vanguard Is All Cheap Nationalist Sentiment and Cartoonish Action

The film is an uncanny reflection of the jingoism that Hollywood has been wrapping in glossy spectacle and exporting for decades.

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Vanguard
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Stanley Tong’s Vanguard is an unsettling, uncanny reflection of the jingoism that Hollywood has been wrapping in glossy spectacle and exporting to foreign markets for decades. The hallmarks of post-9/11 action cinema are all accounted for here, from the sentimentalized militarism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to the thoroughly privatized espionage of the Mission: Impossible series, to the weightless, CG-suffused action of a Fast & Furious yarn. The main difference, of course, is that China, and not the U.S., serves as the implicit guarantor of justice in the fantastical global order imagined by Vanguard.

The film takes its title from the high-tech security agency that our heroes work for, a corporate-military hybrid operation with endless resources that serves as a more palatable version of China’s special forces. Headquartered in London and overseen by Tang Huating (Jackie Chan), Vanguard becomes engaged in protecting the family of wealthy Chinese businessman Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou) when the English authorities are too tied down by a Chinese New Year parade to intervene. A terrorist cell headed by a snarling Mideast stereotype named Omar (Eyad Hourani) is out for revenge against Qin, who evidently betrayed Omar’s father to the authorities, leading to the latter’s death-by-clandestine-bombing. Depending on the scene, Omar aims to extract revenge by attempting to murder Qin, kidnapping him, or holding the man’s family hostage in exchange for information.

Tang dispatches Vanguard agents and best buds Lei (Yang Yang) and Kaixuan (Ai Lun) to rescue Qin, resulting in an international pursuit that brings the heroes from London to some of the typical places visited in neo-colonial blockbusters: Dubai, anonymous dusty villages in the Middle East, and, of course, “Africa,” a location that Tong and co-writer, Tiffany Alycia Tong, feel no need to label more specifically. In the early-film mission to this nondescript Africa, populated by more computer-animated fauna than a Disney remake, we meet Fareeda (Xu Ruohan), Qin’s daughter and an idealistic nature conservationist.

Fareeda is working to protect elephants from poachers—mostly, it seems, via social media. In the real world, poachers largely sell their wares to wealthy Chinese buyers. However, the usually frenetic Vanguard, in a moment of subtextual what-about-ism, slows down to reflect not on the destination of today’s poached ivory, but on the ugly history of European imperialism. A scene set in Fareeda’s high-tech wicker treehouse, which dangles from an acacia tree like a bramble, sees the enlightened colonizer explaining to Lei that birds-of-paradise were almost hunted to extinction by 19th-century colonizers.

The film appropriates what seems like every trope of the globetrotting American blockbuster to Chinese-nationalist ends; it could almost be considered a pastiche if it weren’t so sincere. When a terrorist who’s taken Lei captive tries to impress the agent by speaking in Mandarin, a stone-faced Lei answers with a noble quotation about knowing oneself, followed by the admonition, “You have learned our tongue but not our ethics.” A very hokey line, but then, perhaps not too far off from something Captain America might grumble at a villain in a Marvel film. It’s a connection that the writers evidently welcome, since they give Kaixuan’s small son an obsession with an action figure called “Captain China,” who, the child informs everyone, is much stronger than Captain America—and resembles his father.

You might argue that it isn’t worth treating the film’s implied politics any more seriously than those of the other films Tong and Chan have made. For one, it’s difficult to maintain that the arguably dicey politics of Rumble in the Bronx really undermine the pleasures of watching its deft acrobatics, precise camerawork, and fluid editing. But Vanguard lacks the spatial coherence and relative physical fidelity of such collaborations, its frantic cuts on action obscuring both the sexagenarian Chan’s diminished pace and the feats of the younger performers.

Like many of Tong and Chan’s earlier collaborations, Vanguard’s end credits are accompanied by behind-the-scenes footage of stunt performances, to emphasize the death-defying labor of the filmmakers. Here, though, the main takeaway is the extent to which this labor has been effaced by the omnipresence of garish CGI, obvious digital compositing, and dizzying editing. For all this, it would be hypocritical to get too mad at Vanguard: In all its cheap nationalist sentiment and cartoonish action, the film merely shows us what the rest of the world sees when it goes to the latest Hollywood mega-release.

Cast: Jackie Chan, Yang Yang, Ai Lun, Mu Qimiya, Xu Ruohan, Jackson Lou, Eyad Hourani, Zhu Zhengting, Yang Jianping, Zhou Bin, Wang Yanlong, Roy Wong Director: Stanley Tong Screenwriter: Stanley Tong Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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