In 1906, Hong Kong was revolting against the Qing Dynasty. A group of politically active citizens led a campaign to protect revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Wen (Zhang Hanyu) from Qing assassins. That means I get to see Asian dudes kick each other.
The first half of Bodyguards and Assassins is pretty much setting the stage for battle. There is an attack from descending assassins dropping acid, fighting with hooks on chains and a few other scuffles, but the juicy Hong Kong action comes later. For the first half we get to revel in 1906 Hong Kong on the street level, with digital backgrounds creating the history. The men still had their hair in queues in that era so it still looks classical.
There is a life worth protecting from the Qings. Li Yu-tang (Wang Xueqi) finances the campaign to guard Sun, but he doesn’t want his son Chong-huang (Wang Po-cheih) involved. Of course Chong-guang wants to be a part of history. We see Yu-tang’s compassion in family life and get to know other pivotal bodyguards. For instance, the loser gambler Shen Chong-yang (Donnie Yen) who finds out he had something worth fighting for.
Then it’s on. The Qing attack a rickshaw convoy with crossbows and all they have are sacks of rice to protect them. You’ll see rickshaws defend against descending assassins. There’s one hardcore Donnie Yen fight in the street and you won’t believe how he faces the charging Yan Xiaoguo (Hu Jun) later.
The beggar Liu Yu-Bai (Leon Lai) has a nice fight incorporating stairs, ledges and bamboo against dozens of attackers. Yan is the persistent evil badass who never stops coming at Sun.
Throughout the battle, the film honors the revolutionaries who died in battle with on screen text giving their name, birthplace and dates of birth and death. That’s an interesting way to maintain gravitas during awesome action. Also there are plenty of tragic scenes of final hours and selfless sacrifice, a common theme of Hong Kong action.
At 139 minutes you probably have to be really interested in Hong Kong history or at least historical battles to seek out Bodyguards and Assassins. I think the film is a rewarding mix of relatable period piece and kick-ass action.