The Defender

To my mind The Defender (aka Bodyguard from Beijing*) is a typical contemporary Hong Kong action film. There is none of the poetry or epic scope of some of Jet Li’s earlier films (such as Once Upon A Time in China 1 and 2 or Tai Chi Master – favourites of mine). This film is reasonably entertaining and competently made, rather than stirring or inspiring.

I am wondering if this film is a remake of the United States movie The Bodyguard starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. I have never seen the American film – I must admit that I am one of those who consider Costner to be a wooden actor and the thought of watching him falling in lerv for a couple of hours is a distinct turn off for me. I would much rather watch the more intense and classier Jet Li, who does the ‘still waters run deep’ thing so well. I always admire male actors who do a good job of playing inarticulate, taciturn, hard jawed men of action in such a way that they still manage to be engaging to the audience, and suggest that there are emotional depths beneath their stolid surfaces. Li does this many times during his career, and moderates the ‘strong silent type’ character to suit whatever film he is in effectively and with subtlety. But I must admit that in films like this one, or the later Contract Killer or the dreadfully mediocre Cradle 2 the Grave, I feel that I am watching Li in a role which any reasonably good actor could acquit himself well in (martial arts prowess aside). From films like Tai Chi Master, Danny the Dog, Fearless and Warlords we know that Li has more range as a dramatic actor than films like The Defender let him show. The poor bloody man has had to wait a long time to get a chance to demonstrate this.

Li is supported well in The Defender by a couple of good performances. Kent Cheng, recognizable to Hong Kong film fans as a good, and oft cast, character actor**, puts in a fine performance as a cop who gradually reveals that underneath his slovenly appearance he has some admirable character traits. During the course of the film Cheng quietly builds complexity and depth into what is essentially a character designed to fulfill the purpose of being the comic relief with heart. Colin Chou (Ngai Sing)*** is a charismatically mean bad guy – all cold eyes, grinding teeth, and little bursts of hysteria. And he moves bloody well too. (I discuss the action in this film in my next blog).

Christy Cheung, as the heroine, does a really good job. She performs with panache, and invests her character with glamour, fesitiness, a little petulance and, finally, the pain of the lovelorn. The rapport between her and Li is terrific. The film charts the relationship between these 2 from one of being of mutual irritation and antagonism to fascination to deeper feeling, and the actors handle this transition well. The scene in Cheung’s bedroom where she makes a definite pass at her befuddled bodyguard is a corker. You can cut the atmosphere with a knife. Cheung pumps out the sex appeal and Li nicely judges the amount of stammering confusion his conflicted and sorely tempted character needs to show to the camera. The burgeoning relationship between these 2 characters gives heart to this film and provides motivation for Li’s heroic actions in the final fight scenes. But I do have a quibble in regards to the way this relationship is depicted – it slows the film down. Maybe there are just too many scenes dealing with the romance, or maybe they’re just a little too long, but by the time the ‘birthday date at the restaurant’ scene rolls around the film seems to have run out of momentum. The intensity of the threat of Chou’s character gives it pace and intensity again.

*Cast summary and plot can be found here:

**He was terrific as Porky Wing in Once Upon A Time In China.

***Who was later to square up again to Jet Li in The Forbidden Kingdom in his wonderfully sibilant performance of The Jade Warlord

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13 Responses to The Defender

  1. This is one of those that I call a final-reeler, worth it just for the last fight scene. Although, I have to admit to it being one of my original “guilty pleasures” – it’s about the most “adult” romance carried out in any of his films, albeit in the typically low-key, vaguely referenced and largely unfulfilled sub-plot way that’s frustratingly common in his films.

    It’s definitely remake of the Costner film, in which the romantic scenes do actually carry a little more weight, forming the core of the original film, really, as Kevin certainly doesn’t have the capacity to carry a film on action scenes alone!

    Funnily enough, I was working through a book I have called Hong Kong Babylon which references this movie in connection to the high turnover of films around this time, a lot of them being direct remakes of Hollywood blockbusters, and usually made without an actual script (basically, at the time – I’m not sure if it’s still the case – all you needed to make a film was a recognisable star or two, thus guaranteeing profit, the rest came after). I’m guessing once the cast was assembled, the original was referenced for plot points, with action scenes choreographed around them.


    • I agree with your point about the romance.

      I haven’t read Hong Kong Babylon yet but it is definitely on the list. But in terms of the point you made about the way films were made in Hong Kong in the 1990s – I have heard / read similar from other sources. I think it’s interesting to consider what effect this had on the way HK film makers approached plot construction and narrative. I have pet theories on this which I am saving up for when I have the energy to write a super blog about it.


      • Well, Hong Kong Babylon doesn’t go into too much detail (which I’m about 20 pages into scanning at the moment, no intentiones to overload you with too much material all at once, it’s more a case of once I set my mind to doing something, I often get pre-occupied and carried away with it). It (the book) serves more of an introductory to most of the topics it covers, really, but many of the films borne from this high demand/turnover system are my favourites, so for whatever detriment it may have had in some ways, it probably lent some inspired, improvisational energy to other things.

        I’ll look forward to the future blogs – as much background as I have, they’ve always got a unique perspective or highlight aspects I’d never noted or considered.


  2. jpfmovies says:

    Good call on this one Dangerous. I like the movie as well though it seemed (at least my copy) to have a relatively low production value. Be that as it may, I think your comment on the Costner Bodyguard remake is accurate. I, unforgivably, have seen the movie and one of its main themes is that Costner considers himself to be a modern day samurai–even to the point of having a live blade in his house which is so sharp it slices a piece of silk as it floats to the earth.

    I thought the child in the film was a little annoying but otherwise I was happy with it.



    • Thanks JP. By the way, I still haven’t watched Yoga yet as I am waiting to watch it with a friend of mine who adores horror movies – we are hopefully going to watch it this weekend. Will let you know what we think of it.


      • jpfmovies says:

        Dangerous I also want you to check out my latest post I am really, really interested in your answer! As for the yoga movie, not only is the horror part cool, but the poses are stunning, that is why I recommended it for your “body part” suggestions. Plus how the hell can you make a horror movie about the peaceful serenity of yoga!! Apparently it was pretty well received in Asia though it did not stay in the theaters long, when it was, it remained in the top ten at all times. Good to hear from you again.


  3. jpfmovies says:

    Satellite–Hong Kong Babylon? Where did you hear about this one? I am going to go on Amazon and get it. Do you know of any other decent asian film books?


    • I am sure she does! For my part can I recommend ‘Chasing Dragons’ by David West, who blogs right here on wordpress as Dorkorama (I am sure you would like his blogs). 2 other excellent books are ‘Planet Hong Kong’ by David Bordwell and ‘Kung Fu Cult Masters’ by Leon Hunt. I really love these books.

      Unfortuantely I haven’t read as many books on these films as I would like so please feel free to recommend your favourite titles.


  4. Satellite – Thanks for your kind words on my blogs.

    I agree that the furious pace of production quite often did give these films a really dynamic energy. Actually a book I recommended above (Planet Hong Kong) has a really great discussion of this in one of its chapters.

    Don’t worry about overloading me with info. I don’t get that much time to read but I do like to do it so any info you have is all grist to my mill. Thanks for doing it.


  5. David West – that’s a familiar name! I haven’t read Chasing Dragons, but I’m presuming it’s the same David West that contributed to an old fanzine called Hong Kong Film Connection. I’ve scanned an article he wrote called “The Good Old Days”, in which he laments the improper use of martial arts in films using historical characters (including Jet’s portrayal of Wong Fei Hung, Fong Sai Yuk and Hung Hey Kwan). It may well have appeared in his book in one form or another, but I’ll upload it to the same online folder as before. The fanzine (I only have four issues) had some very good special interest articles – I particularly like an extensive and very in-depth look at the work of Wong Kar Wai. Unfortunately I don’t have all the issues that it ran in, but they’re a few thousand words each part for the ones I do, and there were at least 4.

    To answer jpfmovies in regards to books, aside from Hong Kong Babylon, I only have two others. One is Bey Logan’s Hong Kong Action Cinema, which is a great mix of information, pictures, history and so forth. The other is Thomas Weisser’s Asian Cult Cinema, but that’s more of a book of capsule reviews, and tends to favour Category III type movies – that was published in the early 90’s, too, so doesn’t have any contemporary films. Everything else I have is in magazines and special feature issues. (Oh, well I have I Am Jackie Chan, as well).

    Hong Kong Babylon touches a bit on the seedier, fairly gossip-worthy aspect of the industry in the 90’s, with talk on triad involvement, plot (as in triad tactics etc, as opposed to film plot) rumours and the like, as well as info on star/director riffs and so forth – thankfully not in an overly sensationalist manner. Definitely an interesting read.


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