BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS (2009) — Of Rickshaws and Revolution, New On Blu

Shout! Factory released Bodyguards And Assassins to Blu-ray on June 14.

Bodyguards And Assassins is a long-anticipated (or severely tardy, if we’re being blunt) Blu-ray release of a 2009 Hong Kong action film. Critically acclaimed in its native land, the award-winning film hit US DVD in 2011 but inexplicably took another five years to get a proper high-def release. Thankfully Shout! Factory has stepped in to make it happen.

The film is about a group of Chinese revolutionaries, mostly fictional but with a few historically-based folks peppered in, most notably China Daily news editor Chen Shaobai (Tony Ka-Fai Leung) who is a leader within the revolutionary movement. His friend Li Yutang (Wang Xueqi) is a wealthy businessman who maintains a respectable public persona but secretly bankrolls the revolutionaries’ activities. He’s unwilling to compromise his apolitical reputation, but his attitude is challenged when things start heating up — especially after some friends are assassinated, and his own firebrand 17-year-old son comes out as a public supporter of democratization.

I was pretty excited to sit down to this, and in the end I liked it, but a number of factors severely dampened my enthusiasm early on. On further consideration, most of these factors aren’t flaws with the film so much as its presentation, marketing, and challenges of its foreign origin, so I’m going to try to cover both angles.

The film assumes a certain familiarity with Chinese history, which left me in the dark for a not-insignificant chunk of the plot. Here’s what you need to know for it to make sense: China is in a transitional period in which dynastic rule is challenged by a push for democracy. The film’s protagonists are revolutionaries who support that push, while their foes represent dynastic or foreign interests. The film’s McGuffin is a perilous trip to attend a meeting with “Dr. Sun”, a well-known turning point in Chinese history that native audiences would immediately recognize, even if it was completely lost on me.

I also found the primary audio track to be poorly mixed and basically unlistenable, switching from soft, barely audible dialogue to ridiculously loud roaring of the music and effects, and needing constant volume adjustment. Dialogue scene? Turn it way up. Ugh, now the music is blaring — turn it back down. Repeat ad nauseum. I actually dozed off several times trying to get through the film’s first half — I thought it was due to lengthy setup, but now I think the audio was to blame. Inaudible dialogue, combined with reading subtitles, is as potent as any lullaby. I ended up switching to the stereo track and had a much better go of it.

Another problem, which I suppose is the fault of the film’s marketing — Donnie Yen’s role is severely over-represented; he plays an important supporting character with a major side story and gets an epic action sequence, but he’s simply not one of the primary protagonists.

And can we talk about his head? We need to talk about his head. I mean, just look at that cranium. I have to assume he’s wearing a bald cap with his real hair packed underneath, because he looks he should be on the operating table in a Roswell autopsy video. It’s… not a good look. Seriously distracting.

(I’m sorry if this is your real head, Donnie Yen. I love you. Please don’t kick my ass.)

Anyway, thankfully he covers his enormous noggin with a bandanna later on, and I don’t think it’s coincidental that the movie starts getting good right about the same time.

That’s right, it starts getting good. It turns an incredible corner as the latter half of the film is a massive rickshaw chase down the streets of Hong Kong. Remember The Gauntlet? (If not, what’s wrong with you? Go watch it immediately). It’s a lot like that, only in 1905 Hong Kong instead of Phoenix. These sprawling sets, by the way, are absolutely incredible, and probably the most impressive aspect of the movie.

Here, the earlier acts’ setup pays off, as many of the endearing characters we’ve been introduced to perform incredible feats of badassery, heroism, redemption, and sacrifice. The film sustains this extended action sequence for about 45 minutes, packed with ambushes, kung fu fights, Chinese ninjas, snipers, insurmountable odds, and several surprisingly emotional character beats.

The film’s confusing first half lost me, but the thrilling latter half and finale won me back. In the end I was surprised how much my opinion had reversed.


Bodyguards And Assassins arrives on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory in a fairly standard release with moderate special features (presented in SD).

There are three DTS-HD MA audio tracks included — Cantonese 5.1, Cantonese Stereo, and English Stereo. As described earlier, I found the mix on the 5.1 track frustratingly unlistenable on my surround setup, needing constant volume adjustment. In the end I gave up and switched to the stereo track and found it much more agreeable.

Special Features and Extras

The disc sports substantial features including a lengthy Making-Of featurette and several short interviews, albeit all in standard definition, presumably ported from the DVD release (upscaled to 1080p but clearly not true HD).

Interviewskung fu
Actor Leon Lai (2:15) — plays “The Beggar”, Liu Yubai
Actor Wang Xueqi (3:35) — plays businessman Li Yutang
Actor Tony Ka-Fai Leung (2:22) — plays revolutionary leader Chen Shaobai
Producer Peter Chan (2:19)

Behind The Scenes (33:28)
The Action (4:28)
The Characters (20:53)
The Set (2:43)
The Design (1:56)
The Makeup (1:40)

Theatrical Trailer (2:25)

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
Bodyguards And Assassins [Blu-ray] | [DVD] | [Instant]

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