Don't be fooled by the title. "Bodyguards and Assassins" isn't some genre-bending mash-up like "Cowboys & Aliens." This big-budget Chinese production mixes hard-hitting action, political intrigue, and historical context with an all-star ensemble to craft a memorable martial arts epic. It wasn't easy though. Director Teddy Chan ("The Accidental Spy") and producer Peter Chan ("The Eye"), no relation, have been trying to make this film for over a decade. Originally titled, "Dark October," "Bodyguards and Assassins" was plagued by numerous delays from the SARS epidemic, government censorship, and the suicide of an investor a day before filming was scheduled to commence.
"Bodyguards and Assassins" is set in 1905 against the backdrop of the coming revolution against the Qin Dynasty. Revolutionist Dr. Sun Yat-Sen is planning a trip to Hong Kong to meet with other movement leaders to overthrow the corrupt government. Armed with this knowledge, the Empress Dowager has dispatched an army of assassins under the command of General Yan Xiaoguo (Hu Jun). The only one who can protect Dr. Sun is Li Yutang (Wang Xueqi), a wealthy businessman trying to straddle the fence on both sides. Li finances an anti-government newspaper run by his friend Chen Shaobai (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), but doesn't want to get personally involved in the revolution. He is also adamantly opposed to his son, Chongguang (Wang Po-Chieh), participating in any shape or form.
Fang Tian (Simon Yam), a former military officer for the empire has arrived in Hong Kong, accompanied by his men, who are disguised as a Peking opera troupe. But, Gen. Yan intercepts them and their brutal murder inspires Li to put together his own band of highly skilled warriors to safeguard Dr. Sun. First among them is A-Si (Nicholas Tse), Li's long-time rickshaw driver. What A-Si lacks in fighting skills, he more than makes up for in unwavering loyalty. Li also recruits a gigantic Shaolin monk nicknamed Stinky Tofu (former NBA star Mengke Bateer), who left the monastery to sell stinky tofu on the streets. Next is Liu Yubai (Leon Lai), a once mighty martial arts master who has become a scraggily beggar over the love of a woman (Michelle Reis). Also joining them is Fang Hong (Li Yuchun), Fang Tian's daughter, who has vowed revenge against her father's killers. Completing the group is Shen Chongyang (Donnie Yen), a corrupt police officer with a gambling addiction and a willingness to do any dirty deed for the right price. Shen's former love, Yue-ru (Fan Bingbing), is now married to Li. Initially hired to spy against the seditionists, Shen is convinced by her to protect Li instead.
"Bodyguards and Assassins" sports an expansive cast and a myriad of subplots. It can be a bit hard to follow, especially for those forced to rely on subtitles. The film takes its time to develop these characters. In fact, the entire first half of the movie is devoted to introducing the main players and moving them across the cinematic chess board. The pace is slow and the dialogue is packed with filibustering about sacrifice and ideals. Thankfully, these moments are saved by the strong performances of the main cast. While Donnie Yen is given the lion's share of the publicity, he only plays a supporting role. The true hero is Li Yutang. Wang Xueqi, whose long career includes "Warriors of Heaven and Earth" and Chen Kaige's "Yellow Earth," brings a serious gravitas to the role and serves as the anchor of the story. In a clever move, the opening prologue features Jacky Cheung as a teacher and revolutionary who is assassinated by General Yan. Cheung is a renowned actor and pop star in Asia and his death lets the audience know that no one is safe, despite their star status.
The second half of the movie is devoted entirely to the arrival of Sun Yat-Sen in a convoy of rickshaws, which are flanked by Secret Service-esque bodyguards. Their objective is to escort him from the harbor to a safehouse with assassins attacking from nearly every alleyway and rooftop. This extended chase sequence is reminiscent of "The Gauntlet" or "16 Blocks." Various fighting styles are highlighted with the best fight scene belonging to Donnie Yen and MMA Cung Le.
The production designers have also done a fantastic job in recreating the Hong Kong of 1905. "Bodyguards and Assassins" looks and feels genuine, rather than world created entirely on a studio set.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The transfer is clean with colors popping out nicely.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 with the original Mandarin and an English dubbed Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Dialogue is crisp and clear. Your speakers will feel every hit in each fight scene.
The DVD includes The Making of Bodyguards and Assasins, a standard behind-the-scenes look which is broken up into five chapters: The Characters (20:50), The Set (2:42), The Design (1:54), The Make-Up (1:38), and The Action (4:26)
You'll also get extended interviews with Leon Lai (2:14), Wang Xueqi (3:34), Tony Ka-fai Leung (2:20), and Peter Chan (2:18), which were culled from the same shoot.
The DVD also includes the film's international theatrical trailer.
"Bodyguards and Assassins" was originally released in Asia in December of 2009. It received eighteen nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards winning in the categories for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Action Choreography among others. It's not as stellar a martial arts film as "Ip Man," but it's a solid actioner.