Sunday, January 24, 2010

Spoiling for something

Last night, we went to see Bodyguards & Assassins. I thought it would be great – after all, it had bodyguards! And Assassins!

Unfortunately, although it had bodyguards! And Assassins! It didn't really have much of a plot. Or characterisation. Or well filmed action. It tried to make up for this with mawkish, sentimental manipulation of the audience, which was jolly decent of them, but still, that's not really what you want from a night out. That's not to say that I don't enjoy being manipulated, but you can't get that in a cinema in Hong Kong, even if you try and hide it under a blanket. The ushers will know.

Various things spoiled the film for me. One was that General Fang, who apparently is quite a big deal, but dies without ever really being introduced, was the spitting image of Craig Charles. Maybe you haven't seen him since he was in Red Dwarf – well, it turns out he was fomenting rebellion in Tsientsin, against the Qing dynasty. If Rimmer had been around to protect him, maybe he wouldn't have died.

Oh, sorry, there's a spoiler for you. He dies. In fact, just about everyone dies. Sorry. (There is one innovation that I've never seen in a film before – a man gets engaged to be married. And then gets killed. Where do they get such incredible ideas from? I was waiting to see if there would be a black police sergeant, a week off retirement, who was going to bite the dust, but no sign of him. Maybe in the director's cut.)

For the second half of the film, whenever somebody dies, there's a long, slow, pornographic pan over their bloodied corpse, and then their name and when they were born and died is superimposed over their face, while the music surges to a climax of weepiness. The first time it happened, I wondered why Craig Charles had not been credited, because he didn't get any sort of epitaph; by the tenth time, I was waiting for them to flash up a picture of my face: James' self respect, expired 23 January, 2010. During one of these scenes I looked over to see my girlfriend in tears – I was pretty bloody upset myself, because there was another half hour of this cinematic disaster to endure.

Not that everyone gets the slo-mo porno death mask treatment. All those poor assassins die without so much as an introduction. Serve them right for not respecting crockery: near the start the EVIL ARMY of assassins each smash a cup to commemorate their dedication to the cause. Strangely, you never see a bunch of pint-size midget assassins in the phalanx of assassins, but when it's convenient to the 'plot', eight or nine evil seven-year-olds turn up to stab a bloke to death.

Maybe they weren't assassins. Perhaps it was some propaganda that the Chinese producers of the film were spreading to audiences in the People's Republic of China: don't go to Hong Kong, you'll get stabbed by a gang of marauding children, angry that they're not tall enough to go on any of the rides at the world's smallest Disneyland.* Or was this product placement by the Hong Kong tourist board: 'come to Hong Kong – in the past we had gangs of evil children, but not in the twenty-first century!' I wonder if that's a persuasive reason to visit.

The photography is great in parts – the nicely ropey CGI'd Hong Kong where they've deleted all the new buildings is almost convincing – but it keeps letting itself down. The majority of the combat sequences are hard to interpret; it's pretty hard most of the time to see who's hitting who, and it can't make up its mind if it's going to be gritty and realistic, or have a man stop a galloping horse by running into it headfirst. There's a part that's meant to be elegiac and uplifting and terribly sad, as a big bloke tears down some scaffolding (it's good to see that the people of Hong Kong never had respect for the urban environment, not just now, but in 1908 too), but it's ruined by somebody else continually shouting 'stinky tofu! stinky tofu!' while the Big Guy bites the dust.

Perhaps I'm being unduly negative. But when a film thinks 'characterisation' is a man with a beard (that means he's addicted to opium) and he can be cured of this by a few words in his ear and a shave, you wonder what people were doing. It doesn't appear they spent much time on the script, for a start.

To be positive, Eric Tsang does have a very amusing moustache. And I've learned a lot about Sun Sat-sen. Like, er, the fact that he had a hat. And a side parting. If nothing else, it's taught me valuable lessons about revolutionary history.

* Hey, it might be the world's smallest, but at least it's also the most unprofitable! Hooray!


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