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'Vanguard' 2020 Review: A Messy, CGI-Heavy Action Adventure

Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.

The official US theatrical poster for Vanguard.

The official US theatrical poster for Vanguard.

The Film Legacy of Jackie Chan Continues to Crumble

The action-adventure film Vanguard is the seventh collaboration between lead actor Jackie Chan and writer/director Stanley Tong (after Supercop, Rumble in the Bronx, First Strike, The Myth, CZ12, and Kung Fu Yoga; eighth if you include Chan’s cameo in Supercop 2).

Vanguard tries to be a simple adventure about a team of former CIA agents and special ops protecting high-end clients from assassins and terrorist organizations, but it somehow manages to mess that up. Jackie Chan and Stanley Tong have been filmmaking partners for the better part of three decades and they’ve somehow totally misconstrued what it is fans want to see from the now 66-year-old international action superstar.

Chan is obviously older than he was in his prime, but there are ways to work around that as he ages. He’s delivered solid recent efforts such as Little Big Soldier and The Foreigner, but tends to fail when he seemingly tries to provide the action he was known for while utilizing special effects such as wire work and green screen when he never did previously.

Little Big Soldier found ways to be entertaining due to The Soldier's (Chan) devotion to not wanting to fight, which resulted in creative sequences that catered to Chan not being able to take that physical toll on his body anymore. What's frustrating is that Chan is creative enough to come up with ways to work around being older, but it feels like he takes a lazier route to attempt to cash in on his former glory, an American trend, or to simply accelerate a film into completion.

Jackie Chan as Tang Huating in Vanguard.

Jackie Chan as Tang Huating in Vanguard.

Too Many Effects?

Vanguard relies on incredibly mediocre CGI not only in its fight sequences, but also in the elements that surround those fights. There’s a computer-generated lion, a pair of CG hyenas that are laughably bad and the majority of the car chases are poor thanks to awkward and clunky CG.

Vanguard utilizes all of this high-tech gear like a bullet dodging hoverboard, a remote-controlled pigeon, and a swarm of remote-controlled bees. Everything CGI-related looks unfinished. It's not quite a rough draft, but it's missing that final layer of shadows and proper lighting to make it appear more realistic.


Less Is More

The highlights of Vanguard are when it is either only filmed practically or has such subtle special effects that it looks like it was traditionally shot. Jackie Chan does have these short spurts where he shows a few glimmers of the action star he used to be complete with leg takedowns and the slapstick comedy he was known for. He executes getting into an SUV while it’s moving almost effortlessly and apparently almost drowned while making this film. While the car stuff featured in Vanguard is mostly unimpressive, the limo drifting scenes are at least somewhat entertaining and look the least fake.

Those little enjoyable nuggets in Vanguard are so few and far between though. As Chan ages, he seems to be making more and more films that are in the vein of Operation Condor. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also diluting what was so great about the original Operation Condor films. Why would you willingly watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when the original trilogy is so much better?

Jackie Chan as Tang Huating.

Jackie Chan as Tang Huating.

The deadly mercenary organization in the film, the Arctic Wolves, originates from the fictional Arab country of Jiadebala. This is somewhat odd since all of the “bad guys” are noticeably Arab and mostly only speak English while the "good guys" are all Chinese and only occasionally speak English. At one point, it seems like every major character in the film wears a scarf or turtleneck for part or most of the film, other than Chan who is dressed in a bright blue suit that would put Harry from Dumb and Dumber to shame.

The best action sequence in the film takes place in a rushing river and involves a ton of chaos taking place on several rafts and jet skis. Vanguard accomplishes something extraordinary here with a fight scene that occurs on multiple water crafts and in water that is constantly moving. The end of it is totally ruined by horrid special effects, but the majority of it seems to have been filmed practically. You see evidence of this in the outtakes that play during the end credits.

This is the sequence Jackie Chan nearly drowned in.

This is the sequence Jackie Chan nearly drowned in.

A Heartbreaking Disappointment

Vanguard overcomplicates a simple concept and tries to capitalize on the success of Netflix's Extraction with a lighter tone, sillier antics, solid gold cars, and Jackie Chan using John Cena’s attitude adjustment wrestling maneuver. It has a few decent moments buried within this shiny gold turd of an action film. Whatever happened to Jackie Chan’s face is incredibly distracting for all of the wrong reasons, as well. This is all coming from a huge Jackie Chan fan and writing this review was heartbreaking. Realizing Jackie Chan’s film legacy has been soured by removing everything that made him enjoyable in the first place is an absolute tragedy.

© 2020 Chris Sawin


Chris Sawin (author) from Houston, TX on November 23, 2020:

Also, just because a movie has enjoyable moments doesn't make it any less terrible. A bad movie is still a bad movie. Until people come to that realization and stop throwing their money at lackluster films at best (Vanguard has already made $50 million), then we'll continue to get bad films from our favorite actors.

Chris Sawin (author) from Houston, TX on November 23, 2020:

Maybe it was Stanley Tong's script and choices, but Jackie has chosen to work with him at least eight times (press release said nine, but I couldn't locate the ninth collaboration between them).

I picked on the blue suit for a reason. Jackie is going out into the field trying to be tactical and stealthy. He's not going to be able to hide or sneak up on enemies while wearing that thing. He sticks out wherever he goes and that is especially bad for someone who specializes in running a covert organization.

I forgot about the chief of police, but I still considered this an issue. The majority of the supposed bad guys looked different than the heroes and it felt intentional.

Yes, Jackie has used green screen and CGI for years and those films usually feature CGI like this. Those films are lackluster and poor in comparison to Jackie's other works mostly for utilizing these effects. The Ip Man franchise, at least the Donnie Yen films, know how to utilize wire work to a more subtle extent. Is all wire work bad? No, but I feel like Jackie and Stanley Tong don't know how to use it properly.

I brought up Little Big Soldier and The Foreigner because in the past ten years those are the only Jackie Chan films I've enjoyed. Not much more to that.

I brought up Jackie Chan's face because it looks like he's had poor cosmetic surgery. His face looks abnormally smooth and it's not pleasant to look at. I liked the withered look he was going for in some of his older yet more recent films and it looks like he did something to his face to try and improve his middle-aged looks and failed.

There was no character development or even a worthwhile villain in the film. That was another issue.

He doesn't need to do anything you mentioned unless he wants to. All I was trying to say was that he's successfully made films that don't showcase how old he's become to an entertaning result. Vanguard isn't one of them. There were a few enjoyable moments, which I mentioned but you left out from your critique. If you can't do something to the extent you used to, why still do it? Find another way to entertain. Jackie has done it before, but it just feels like he's trying to capitalize on what's trendy rather than what he can deliver.

Kauri on November 23, 2020:

Wow. That was pretty harsh. I agree this was not the best film Jackie has made-though I blame much of that on Stanley Tong's script and choices. But it wasn't as bad as you say, IMO.

Your review has some valid points - CGI being one of them. No one should ever allow Tong anywhere near CGI again. Ever. Though I will admit I thought the car chases were fine. But yes, animals, flying technology, and worse - the end of the jet ski scene were the not good. The river scene was especially disappointing because the real film of that scene - going around the rock - (which was not included in the film) was really thrilling.

That said, many of your other points seem fairly picky.

You didnt like Jackie's blue suit? So what. Its a style I've seen men of color wear in my area, so someone likes that fashion. In fact, I found it funny that right above your comment about this suit is a photo of Jackie NOT in this suit. Meaning its not like he wore it the entire film. So this was pretty picky thing to have in a review.

And NO, all the Arabs were not bad guys. Did you forget the chief of police and his men who helped Jackie's team? And who spoke Chinese as well as English? I for one appreciated the break from reading subtitles.... even American action films "translate" for the audience. This didnt hurt the film for me at all.

Regarding green screen and wire work - you do know Jackie's films have used those for years, yes? Even his stunt center in Tianjin has its own green screen facility. It just was not done well by Tong. No idea why and that did suck. But that's a different issue than just using it.

Even wire work has been used for years. It is in pretty much in every action film anyone makes anymore including Jet li, Donny Yen, etc. Yes, I agree. I miss the days when HK stuntmen just DID things... practically... on their own.... but life has changed for the industry. Not just for Jackie. The recent IP Man Master Z had obvious wire work. We know that and deal with it.

As to your comparing this film to "recent" work like Big Little Soldier - that is ridiculous as that film was made 10 years ago. Its not a recent film. Even The Foreigner is 3 years old - when JC was 63 not 66.

And I've no idea what you mean when you ask "whatever happened to Jackie Chan's face".... seriously, the man is 66. He looks OLD cuz he IS old. Just wait till you get old. It happens to all of us. Geesh. Talk about false expectations and judgement.

I myself was hoping for more from this film, but I still found things to enjoy.

Here's what I didnt like. I also was not happy with the CGI. And I felt Tong's script did not provide much emotional connection to the characters. His directing and editing style often made things feel rushed, so we couldn't connect emotionally with the characters or fully enjoy much of the action that WAS in the film. The substitution of other actors for the action scenes would have been ok for me (as I found some of it very enjoyable), but Jackie's time on screen didnt give him the opportunity to shine very often. Or to show his charismatic humor and style. I did laugh at the "why you shoot yourself, eh?" line though, even though I knew it was coming. That was a glimmer of the Jackie I love. And he did look amazing straddling that jet ski in the river. Every bit the action star in a practical stunt.

Yes. I surely wouldn't rank this a top film. Maybe a B/B-. But it had its moments. IMO you sound like a disgruntled fan who still wants Jackie to be young Jackie, and he's not, so you just vented about any little thing you could find to vent. There were some things to praise. And enjoy.

Yes - I agree Jackie should try a new direction in his films to accommodate his age. When younger he famously developed many new styles and took risks with different genres. I imagine its hard when your fans want you to still be funny, still be an action star, still do practical stunts, still look 30 years old. Films like Lockdown took hits from fans because because Jackie tried something that worked with his age. Gotta be really tough on a guy.

Especially when coming from so called "huge" Jackie fans.