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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Defender_(1994_film)
**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