|Sammo Hung's The Bodyguard might look like an ass-kicking star vehicle for the venerable large one, but it mostly isn't thanks to its uneven script and leisurely storytelling. Also: Sammo Hung's character, retired Chinese army officer Ding, is suffering from the onset of dementia. So instead of seeing an aging soldier jump into action to protect a young girl named Cherry (Jacqueline Chan) from nefarious gangsters, we must watch a doddering geezer lumber in the general direction of danger because he wants to help Cherry – even if he can't always remember who or what is putting her in danger. How vaguely exciting. Having Sammo Hung play a passive and absentminded character makes for a decidedly less intense action movie, but the change-up isn't all bad. Stripped of enlarged expectations, The Bodyguard finds some success as an offbeat, small and sweet little movie about an unusual friendship. The bone-breaking violence? A bonus that action movie junkies may consider fast-forwarding to.
The set-up: When we're introduced to Ding, we learn that years ago his granddaughter disappeared on his watch. She was tragically never found, and in the ensuing years Ding and his own daughter have become estranged. Ding now lives alone in the northern China town of Suizhen, where his daily bouts with dementia take their toll. He's still got a community around him; besides receiving the overbearing admiration of his landlady Mrs. Park (Li Qin-Qin), Ding is friends with Cherry, the young daughter of neighbor Li Zheng-Jiu (Andy Lau, in a ballyhooed supporting role). Cherry drops by uninvited when Li is not around – which is often because Li is a deadbeat gambler who owes a large sum to gangster Choi Dong-Hen (an amusingly evil Feng Jiayi). Choi gives Li a chance to make good on his debt by stealing a bag of jewels from Russian gangsters, but Li gives into temptation and tries to keep the bag for himself, leading Choi to send men to the neighborhood to threaten Cherry.
Naturally Ding is there to protect her with his peerless marital arts skills – which he does a total of twice, once mid-film and again at the climax. Besides those two scenes, the action genre is served by a chase scene involving Li and the Russians, and also some villainous sneering from Choi. Remove all that stuff from the equation and Bodyguard feels flabby. The script is largely preoccupied by fleshing out Ding's world, with many scenes languidly depicting the relationship between Ding and Cherry, i.e., she needs a father figure and he's missing a granddaughter, and they both like ice cream (Wow!). There are some enjoyable asides like an animated expository sequence, or the curmudgeonly commentary from three old dudes (Tsui Hark, Karl Maka and Dean Shek) who hang out down the road. There's also some stuff that goes nowhere, like the revelation that Ding once could have implicated Choi in a crime, but forgot due to his dementia. This detail had the potential for strong irony but Hung somehow fails at using it that way.
This uneven style of filmmaking is not uncommon for Sammo Hung. From his classics to his not-so-classics, Hung has long embraced a multi-genre, multi-tone approach. However, he's reduced the histrionics for this less forgiving cinema era; Hung wisely eschews overwrought drama in favor of more gentle emotions, and finds warm if not exceptional success in his portrayal of Ding and Cherry's bond. The whole is still far from consistent. Besides the rampant voiceover, which sometimes intrudes on the storytelling, the film gives away a big reveal (the loss of Ding's granddaughter) right at the beginning. Saving that information for later could have been more powerful, but Hung misses many opportunities in The Bodyguard. Besides simply arranging events in a more effective way, Hung could have capitalized on the script's potential for irony or humor. The idea of a forgetful old dude who kicks ass while stumbling around town is ripe for low-key absurdist comedy, but that type of filmmaking just isn't Hung's bag. Nineties-era Wilson Yip would have been a better fit.
The action, when it does happen, is solid. The chase scene involving Andy Lau is nimbly choreographed, while Sammo Hung's fight scenes are fast and hard-hitting. Hung still has moves, though he's aided by close-ups and motion blur – hey, he's old, give him a break. For most, the climactic fight will be the showstopper: Ding stumbles into a room full of nameless thugs who proceed to (Spoiler!) get their asses whipped by an early-onset Alzheimer's sufferer. The intensity of the action can be a bit surprising. Blood is spilt, bones are broken and there's lots of pain – an incongruous level of violence considering the film's sometimes gentle tone. Whatever – action fans should take what they can get. The two fights and genre-friendly cameos (Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu, etc.) serve them, while the warm and fuzzy old-man-young girl friendship suits families and casual filmgoers. Sammo Hung may not have made the movie that action fans were jonesing for, but considering what he was attempting, The Bodyguard is actually not bad. However, the mainland China title, My Beloved Bodyguard, is clearly more appropriate.