Sammo Hung’s long-awaited return to the director’s chair (known as “The Bodyguard” here in the US and “My Beloved Bodyguard” everywhere else), his first since 1997’s Once Upon a Time in China in America, finds the now 64 year old star playing a recently retired security agent drifting sadly into dementia in a small town near the Russian border. After a stirring credit sequence chronicling the training of the formidable bodyguards that make up the Central Security Bureau, including a Gumpish composite photo of Sammo himself guarding Richard Nixon during the latter’s visit to China, and an animated prologue narrating Sammo’s tragic backstory (he lost his granddaughter while babysitting), the film settles into a gentle rhythm, broken only by the adorable cuteness of the little neighbor girl who pals around with Sammo and her gambling degenerate father, played by Andy Lau. The film’s first major action sequence follows Lau as he steals a bag of jewels first from the Russian mob, then from the Chinese gang who forced him to commit the crime in the first place. The second comes as Sammo defends the girl from the Chinese crooks as they try to kidnap her to get to Lau. The final is a tour de force as Sammo takes on the Chinese and the Russians at the film’s climax.
As round now as he is old, Sammo’s fights aren’t the astonishingly acrobatic feats of his early years, when he did things you wouldn’t believe possible for a human that fat. Nor are they even as mobile as his late career work in films like SPL or Rise of the Legend, where he traded speed and athleticism for sheer power. Aided by a convenient stab to the leg in the first sequence, thus giving narrative motivation to his immobility, Sammo mostly just stands in the middle of a room and breaks every limb that comes near him with a variety of grips and twists, the speed of which are enhanced with tricks of the camera. The comparison to The Final Master, another martial arts film at the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival, is illuminating: both films use editing and blurred motion to cover up for defects in their performers’ skill levels. However, where The Final Master cuts to obscure, rendering much of the apparently intricate choreography unintelligible, Sammo always makes the key motions visible, blurring or cutting out the in-between portions to emphasize the bone-crunching power of the impacts, highlighted still further by a unobtrusive X-Ray effect on the shattering extremity (a low-key version of the effect seen in Peter Chan’s Wuxia). The Final Master is dizzying, but Sammo makes the crowd go “whoa!”
Action aside, My Beloved Bodyguard is for the most part sentimental nonsense, densely packed with cameos from throughout Sammo’s career, from his classmates turned co-stars Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, and Yuen Qiu, to the 1980s Golden Age with the wizened masters of Cinema City Tsui Hark, Dean Shek, and Karl Maka, to his last co-star, Eddie Peng. That it works at all is a testament to how, well, beloved Sammo is as a performer. His character has few lines: when Sammo is trying to act, he doesn’t talk very much (as in his brilliant performance in 1988’s Painted Faces). He doesn’t need to. Sammo Hung still has the most expressive eyes in the history of kung fu cinema.