Some exceptional recent mainland blockbusters work both as popcorn entertainment and propaganda (Hello, “The Wandering Earth”!), but “Vanguard” isn’t one of them. Even if the movie’s action scenes were stronger, they’d still be constantly interrupted by dire, momentum-smothering expository dialogue, like when Arctic Wolves leader Broto (Brahim Chab) asks a subordinate, “What is Vanguard?” and is sadly answered with a Powerpoint presentation’s worth of information (“Their services include security for shipping, and VIP protection”).
Viewers are also constantly reminded that the main difference between Vanguard and the Brotherhood of Vengeance is that Vanguard is Chinese: Jiahua (uncredited in even the movie’s concluding titles), Kaixuan’s son, compares him to Captain China, who is “mightier than Captain America,” while the Arctic Wolves hire African poachers who compare themselves with (computer-generated) hyenas. Also: Tang won’t shake hands with Qin because “Greed is the root of all evils” and “protecting the innocents is our paramount duty.” You don’t ever need to read between the lines to know who “our” is: it’s spelled out, underscored, italicized, and bolded in every other scene.
There are, however, a few moments of joyful spectacle at the start of “Vanguard,” like an early white-water rafting chase featuring an expensive-looking jeep which also doubles as a water-craft with retractable wheels. This gonzo set piece is the exception that proves the rule, generally speaking, though there is a fun “Fast & Furious”-esque car chase later on in Jiadebala featuring a couple of hulking SUVs that rocket off of Zambian cliffs and into a building or two.
Still, the best Jackie Chan-related moment in “Vanguard” has to be when Tang prepares to leap over an indoor mall’s guard rail in order to nab a suspect, a sly wink to fans who know Chan for his famous Christmas lights mall jump in “Police Story.” A fellow security guard stops Tang just in time: “Wait! There’s stairs over there.” The rest of “Vanguard” isn’t as enjoyable since it’s more expensive-looking than actually thrilling. Even Chan’s usual behind-the-scenes blooper reel isn’t as fun as it usually is since his presence is often overshadowed by his various stunts’ moving parts. Here’s hoping that Chan will make great stunt work and action choreography his paramount duty in his next movie, which may or may not be the best of his next five.