Overstuffed cheesy fare
Vanguard is a McDonald’s Chinese New Year burger of a movie – its overstuffed layers come garnished with holiday scenes while sugar is poured over a reassuringly familiar list of ingredients.
The meat patty in this mirthful monstrosity is brand name Jackie Chan. He wisely leaves most of the martial arts action to younger actors such as Ai Lun, who is given a kitchen pots-and-cutlery comedy fight scene taken from Chan’s playbook.
This being a holiday blockbuster, albeit one with a long-delayed release, quoting from Chan’s own catalogue is normal, even expected.
The thin excuse for a plot lets Chan, playing Tang, the boss of private security company Vanguard, dash from London to Dubai and elsewhere. Aided by his crew, Tang hopes to foil a kidnapping involving a Chinese businessman Qin (Jackson Lou), his daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan) and terrorists seeking a high-tech weapon.
The something-for-everyone nature of the project is best described as – take a deep breath – a family-friendly, militaristic gunplay, martial arts action-comedy with a pro-China take on world affairs.
As if to further punish film-maker Stanley Tong, a frequent Chan collaborator, political events that have happened since the viral outbreak have made the film’s finale seem almost comically optimistic.
Added to that is the Achilles’ heel of too many Asian films: sloppy visual effects. The African animals here would look fake even if viewed on a first-generation iPhone, while the Fast And Furious (2001 to 2019) homage, featuring exotic cars streaking down Dubai’s streets, reeks of vintage console games.
But like they say: It would not be a Chinese New Year burger if it didn’t come with extra cheese.
JIANG ZIYA: LEGEND OF DEIFICATION
Another festive film coming out of pause mode is animated feature Jiang Ziya: Legend Of Deification, the follow-up to Ne Zha (2019), the highest-grossing non-American animation film at the Chinese box office.
The lush, expensive-looking adaptation of a 16th-century Chinese novel Investiture Of The Gods is part of a cinematic universe of deities, demons and humans. There is an attempt to explain backstories, but the dense cosmology – which includes various realms and classes of supernatural beings – will give the uninitiated the feeling of having dropped into an Avengers movie while knowing nothing of the preceding Thor, Iron Man or Captain America films.
The immortal Jiang Ziya is on the verge of promotion after the events of the first movie – after all, he has defeated the fox demon and is ready to fulfil his destiny. As a test of loyalty, the gods ask him to perform a final task before his ascension, which he fails because of his empathy for humans. For that, he is banished to the earthly realm, where Jiang, with the help of clan members, humans and adorable supernatural creatures, has to earn redemption.
The story’s focus on swirling action at the expense of character can be frustrating – if liberties can be taken in the area of cute animals, why not also add more colour to the two-dimensional Jiang and his friends? But for an intoxicating visual overload, this battle of the divinities told in twitchy video game-influenced graphics is hard to beat.
The sports biopic Leap tracks the Chinese women’s national volleyball team over 40 years of its history, from the time it came from nowhere to world-beating status in the early 1980s, to its lean years before its return to form in recent years.
PG13, 107 minutes
Rating: 2.5 Stars
JIANG ZI YA: LEGEND OF DEIFICATION
PG13, 110 minutes
Rating: 3 Stars
PG, 135 minutes
Rating: 2.5 Stars
PG, 125 minutes
Rating: 2 Stars
M18, 116 minutes
Much of the team’s story is tied to the story of one person, the player-turned-coach Lang Ping, played by Gong Li. Hong Kong director Peter Chan (the romance Comrades, Almost A Love Story, 1996) does what he can to make this a story about solid Chinese values – the willingness to endure a tortuous training regime, the self-loathing that comes with losing – and effectively makes the point that in the 1970s, the nation’s citizens were built differently.
But throughout, the towering figure of Lang, still a deeply respected figure in the country, dominates. But she remains an enigma. The film’s lack of insight into her mind, given her importance to the story, frustrates.
Pinocchio, Italian writer Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century tale of the titular puppet who comes to life, has been adapted for film several times, most famously by Disney in the classic 1940 animated feature.
Just as Disney has done with some of its works, Italian film-maker Matteo Garrone (the award-winning crime drama Gomorrah, 2008) has attempted a live-action version of the fantasy. And like Disney when it tries to make cartoon flying elephants and talking orang utans look real, this project is a misfire.
Garrone uses special effects to make child actor Federico Ielapi look properly wooden. But in the style of fantasy masters like Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, 1981; The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, 1988), dwarf actors in heavy prosthetics play supporting characters. He meets them after he is separated from his father, Gepetto (Roberto Benigni).
Garrone’s adherence to Collodi’s story, with its 19th-century values – disobedient children deserve cruel punishments, for example – and rambling, one-thing-after-another style do the film no good. That anachronistic voice, paired with the low-key realism of the visuals, are an odd pairing.
The version shown in Singapore has English dialogue dubbed over the original Italian to make the film more palatable to families with children. This is a strange decision given the film’s decidedly non-cute look, which some might call grotesque, made worse by how the English voices have unnecessarily strong Italian accents.
Opening this week but not reviewed is military action drama Rogue, starring Megan Fox as the soldier-for-hire of the title. She leads her team into Africa to extract hostages while battling rebel fighters and a man-eating pride of lions. It is directed by M.J. Bassett, who comes to the project after helming well-received action television shows Altered Carbon (2018 to 2020) and Strike Back (2010 to 2020).
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