Bodyguards and Assassins (2009)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2012-12-02
Summary: Revolution is a weighty matter
“Bodyguards and Assassins” is bloated, overwrought and too long. It has one theme, that blood must be shed for the revolution to take place, which the six (!) screenwriters constantly pound home with all the subtlety of a falling safe. The dialog is risible—the characters make political speeches to each other instead of talking although all the good guys are already on board with Sun Yat-Sen’s democratic-nationalist revolution.

There are quite a few instant metamorphoses, none more radical than Li Yu-Tang, a friend of hardcore revolutionary Chen Xiaobai. A successful businessman he had kept his commitment in check by acting as a paymaster for the rebels, always ready to come up with a few thousand to keep the pot boiling. Enraged by seeing demonstrators beaten in the streets with the connivance of the Royal Hong Kong Police and Chen tortured by Manchu loyalists, further radicalized when his newspaper, the “China Daily” is shut down for printing propaganda, Li becomes a firebrand speaker and acknowledged leader of the nationalists in Hong Kong within an afternoon. After a couple of days he is an expert on small unit tactics, on the proper way to move a procession through a potentially hostile crowd and all the covered walkways, tunnels and protected overhangs on their route. Having committed to the revolution he simply knows stuff.

While its thematic content, political/social tunnel vision and obeisance to the founding myths of the PRC make “Bodyguards and Assassins” annoying and a bit of a slog to get through its 2 hours and 18 minutes, there are a lot of rewards if you keep watching. The set design, apparently a 1:1 reconstruction of Hong Kong, 1906 is enthralling. So is the view of the city from the harbor that must be based on a digital matte painting. Since the lead actors were limited by the ham-handed dialog—big Tony Leung and Wang Xue-Qi would have been terrific together if either one of them had just a bit of self-doubt to serve as a catalyst for some emotion between two lifelong friends facing a crisis—the supporting players carried the acting load.

Nicholas Tse was excellent as the rickshaw driver, a role that was full of pathos, uncertainty and fear leavened with indomitable love for his girlfriend who he passes every day on his route but has had a hard time approaching. Zhou Yun did a good job as Ah Suen, the object of his love, although the congenital limp she was enough over the top as to be a distraction. Professional basketball player Mengke Bateer was terrific as a melon flinging madman, crushing loyalist marksmen with well flung cantaloupes. Michelle Reis had the briefest of cameos, an appearance that caused at least one viewer to say “Hey, that looks like Michelle Reis.”

Hu Jun was the all but indestructible rage machine whose job was to kill Sun Yat-Sen or die trying. Like the villains in classic kung fu movies, the more punishment he absorbed—Donnie Yen left him crushed and bleeding, all but decapitated, before his final lurch toward obeying the imperial command.

Very close to the end of the movie there is a scene with a rickshaw rolling down a flight of stone stairs, beginning slowly and gathering speed as it roles, much like a baby carriage on a similar bunch of steps in another movie about revolutionary action, set in a port city in 1905. The movie is “Battleship Potemkin”, the city Odessa. I thought it was strange for director Teddy Chen to unmistakable refer to a film that still resonates with movie lovers throughout the world, setting up a comparison that he must lose.
Reviewer Score: 4