After the last few Lo Wei/Jackie Chan movies on my festival listing (New Fist Of Fury and To Kill With Intrigue among them), I have to admit to having low expectations for the next one, Magnificent Bodyguards. Amazingly, this is a pretty good film. Yes, it's still full of low-budget wuxia effects - in this case, mostly reversed film of fighters leaping down from roofs, cliffs, etc. to simulate jumping up. And this one has the added bonus of having been originally released in 3-D (Wikipedia claims it is the first such Hong Kong film, and of course, Wikipedia is never wrong). So we also get lots of shots of spears, swords, staffs, feet and fist being thrust at the camera. I'm sure it was all very impressive to the contemporary audience; now, it's just charmingly cheesy.
Where we get improvement is in the plot and the fight staging. The plotline here is a fairly standard one. Jackie for a change plays neither a super-stud nor a naive braggard. His character here, while apparently having some renoun in the region, is basically a competent, level-headed fighter for hire, who is hired on here as (no points for guessing!) a bodyguard. He brings along some acquaintences, a deaf fighter who provides some of the comic relief, and a more angry, elder fighter to whom Jackie is actually relatively acquiesent. They are hired on to assist a lady in transporting her terminally-ill brother across a dangerous mountain pass known for being populated by robbers (The Scholar, The King, etc.) to physicians who can help him.
The passage over the mountain turns into a near constant stream of attacks, ambushes and traps. The script keeps things moving right along, only pausing to bring up the mystery of what exactly was up with the ill brother - was he really riding in the cab all along, and is he really ill or is there something else going on? The answer turns out to be a disappointingly bad surprise ending, which takes a little air out of the overall script quality. Overall though, it's still a reasonably well-done little "Saturday serial" type of script.
The fight scenes here are varied and usually interesting. For some of them, they decided to overly focus on showcasing the 3-D effect to the detriment of the fight, but they mainly kept that in check. There are one-on-one fights, group battles, various weapon attacks, hand-to-hand battles, some good footwork from the deaf fighter, the occasional (and usually not overdone) wuxia moves - quite a variety of types. Things get a little out of control in the final fight, with things going on a bit too long and too frantically (before yet another sudden "The End" pops up on the screen - what's up with all of the quick endings?). But all in all, the fight scenes here were a marked improvement over many previous films in the Chan filmography.
Which is not to say there isn't still a good cheese quotient present. The film has a vague kind of Western theme going on, and so the score occassionally breaks into a song that reminded me of a Morricone knock-off more than anything. That is, when they didn't decide to just splice in bits of the Star Wars soundtrack from time to time! It's amazing what they could get away with when nobody was looking.
So, a good solid three star performance here. And with this film, the festival starts to move into the true classic period for Jackie, when he started to take more control of the tenor of his films. Next up: Snake And Crane Arts Of Shaolin.