Vanguard: Stanley Tong’s new Jackie Chan movie is a far cry from cutting edge.
It became a staple of the early, funny Jackie Chan pictures: the cutaway to a Chief of Police looking on in disbelief — generally through a windshield or office glass partition — as our hero did his thing, corkscrewing through the air like a citrus twist tossed into a freshly-shaken martini. Vanguard is a rearwards move towards the inevitable advancement of time, one in which the once vital action star becomes the guy in the three-piece suit who once mocked him.
Jackie stars as Tang Huating, head of the eponymous security firm that employs retired military and security experts to help rid the world of evildoers. Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou), a well-to-do accountant caught in the crosshairs of the “world’s deadliest mercenary organization,” looks to Tang for help in finding his kidnapped daughter. Our adventure begins in Trafalgar Square and ends in a decidedly Disney-esque Dubai that plays home to an $800 million fleet of solid gold roadsters. First stop: Africa, where we save Qin’s wildlife conservationist daughter Fareeda (Xu Ruohan) from a pride of unpersuasive CGI lions. These cats and their animated hyena kinfolk are about as menacing as a doped-up Leo during an MGM logo shoot. Speaking of dopey, an inevitable romance between Fareeda and one of her liberators makes Luke and Leia’s dialogue exchanges look like something out of Ibsen.
If it can’t be done right, don’t do it at all. This is by no means intended to cast ageist aspersions on Stuntmaster Chan. At 66, no one would fault Jackie for making a fashion statement by freeing himself of the once snug fit of wushu in exchange for a pair of slippers. Together with John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Jet Li, Chan helped to introduce a new style of Kung-fu fighting to an all-but-dead genre. Chan brought a lighter comic touch to the material than his contemporaries, a mix of slapstick and daredevil stunts, many of which were performed by the star.
What places Vanguard at the rear of the train is the cardboard script, plus feeble special effects that don’t stop at the FAO Schwarz fauna. Sad though it may be to see the innovator lending his name to the kind of derivative sludge that inspired his call to action in the first place, my argument isn’t against Jackie — he’s still capable of rising to the occasion. Let’s see someone half his age slip pliantly through the open passenger door of an oncoming car. (Not unlike modern-day Steven Seagal, I can barely cross my legs, let alone land a kick.) And the film’s biggest laugh comes at the good natured expense of Jackie’s age: glancing over the railing of a first floor landing before taking a leap, he wisely makes a dash for the stairs.
A move of the cursor to see how much more suffering lay ahead indicated enough time remaining for one last action scene. Or not. Jackie was the first to famously close his pictures with bloopers and outtakes from stunts gone wrong. No blood was shed nor bones broken during the making of this picture, although at one point, mercurochrome was applied to a boo boo. Instead, we close with a ponderous preponderance of 10 minutes worth of foul-ups. Where’s Alfonso Ribeiro’s scintillating play-by-play when you need it?
This is the seventh collaboration between Jackie and writer-director Stanley Tong (Supercop, First Strike, Rumble in the Bronx). Jackie is a hero, and as shamefaced as it makes me to criticize one of his films, this one stinks. ★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
Born to Be — Dr. Jess Ting clearly lived up to his name when, looking down to admire his reconstructive wizardry, he joked, “I make a mean penis.” In 2015, New York began requiring insurance companies to cover gender-affirming surgery. It was Dr. Ting who was assigned the task of making the external face and inner-identity match. It was as if the entire roster of doctors took a giant step backward, leaving Dr. Ting the only one up to accepting the task. Prior to taking the job, the Ting didn’t know the difference between changing a person’s sexual characteristics and a tonsillectomy. Today, he heads the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery. In the first two years, the number of cases doubled. One can only imagine the judgment and scorn regularly cast in his direction, but to his credit, Dr. Ting shrugs off any thought of hate with, “Whatever.” Sadly, the intolerant souls most in need of seeing the film won’t go near it. Admittedly, some of the surgery footage left me woozy, but it’s hard to imagine a more honest and compassionate documentary for those anticipating gender remodification surgery and their loved ones to watch than this. Directed by Tania Cypriano. Now playing the Digital Gym Virtual Cinema. 2020 — S.M. ★★★
Fatman — The premise suggests a potential wellspring of divertissement: in the midst of a potential government shutdown of Santa’s workshop, Billy (Chance Hurstfield), a rich kid who didn’t get what he wants for Christmas, hires a hitman (Walter Goggins) to ice Santa Claus. The writing and directing team of Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms play it straight without a hint of slyness. They dispense with most of the cliches associated with Father Christmas — red suit, reindeer-drawn sleigh, jolly demeanor, etc. — only to replace them with an uninspired slew of stereotypes associated with B-movie contract killers. (Mas Max Kringle?) The first time we see Chris (Gibson), he’s taking target practice. There are moments of invention scattered throughout — the hitman as toy collector, Billy spending the entire film draped in Junior executive threads, and the scene-elevating presence of Marianne Jean-Baptiste bringing a desperately needed light touch to the role of Santa’s wife Ruth. And the choice, whosever it was, to cast ho-ho-homophobe, racist, and antisemite Mel Gibson as America’s chimney-sliding symbol of joy was not only ingenious, but proof positive that the concept of cancel culture continues to evade him. How does this guy continue to find work in an industry known for its lack of foreskin? Alas, the character needed a much lighter touch than the one Gibson was capable of applying. It’s a one-note performance, his razor-burned-tonsils delivery divesting the character of any sign of emotion. 2020 — S.M. ★
The Nest — When his ex-boss offers a chance to make “some real money,” fast-talking commodities broker Rory (Jude Law) thinks for about a second — America isn’t working out for him — before telling wife Allison (Carrie Coon) and their kids Samantha (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell) that it’s time to pack up the stable and move back to London. Unfortunately, writer-director Sean Durkin let his characters down by forgetting to pack a narrative. Disquietude set in at around the 30-minute mark. We know that something bad (good?) is poised to happen, it’s the lack of that other thing in lieu of a “what” and “when” that brings on the jitters. We begin to question the necessity of scenes: other than establishing that Samamtha takes after chain-smoking Allison, why the need for mom to find her daughter’s hidden ashtray? We follow Ben after he’s shooed out of Amanda’s room, but nothing ever comes of it. Law has the tan, frame, and insouciance needed to fill out his expensive wardrobe, while Coon excels at gradually allowing signs of her impending collapse to emerge. (One delights in watching her guzzle directly from the bottle after the maitre d’ offers a cork to sniff.) But if all we have to take from this journey is news that Rory’s job is to pretend to be rich for a living, one must question the necessity of the trip. 2020 — S.M. ★★