Jackie Chan, Zhang Lanxin, Yao Xingtong, Laura Weissbecker, Kwone Sang-Woo, Oliver Platt
PG – Some Violence
It’s the holiday season and the 12 days of Christmas are upon us, but Jackie Chan hopes to turn moviegoers’ eyes eastward to a different “12” – the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. In this film, the third installment of Chan’s Armour of God series (though it isn’t marketed as such), he returns as mercenary and master thief JC.
The “Chinese Zodiac” (aka CZ12) of the title refers to 12 bronze animal heads, one of each animal, that were stolen when Anglo-French armies looted the Summer Palace in 1860. Six of them are missing, and JC has been hired to track them down and find them by the father-and-son-duo of Lawrence (Platt) and Michael (Vincent Sze) (adopted, perhaps?), who run the shady Max Profits Corporation. This quest brings JC and his crew – Simon (Kwone), Bonnie (Zhang) and David (Liao Fan) from the chateaux and vineyards of France to an island in the South Seas and beyond, as they meet a French heiress (Weissbecker), a Chinese archaeology student (Yao), and a ruthless rival mercenary named The Vulture (Alaa Safi). That, and the expected smorgasbord of action set pieces, which include outrunning Rottweillers in a garden maze, and a skydiving skirmish high above an active volcano.
Chinese Zodiac has been touted as possibly Jackie Chan’s last big headlining action film and a return to the Jackie Chan action-comedy of old. In that respect, it delivers, because this is classic, typical Jackie Chan. It really is reminiscent of the films earlier in his career, and since it’s been 21 years since Armour of God II: Operation Condor, it does tickle the nostalgia bone. The action sequences in this film are uniformly entertaining and while it seems Chan has learnt a fair bit from working on big Hollywood films, he hasn’t lost that essence entirely, so we have a romp that’s slicker and a fair bit more polished than his earlier efforts, yet still unmistakably Jackie Chan.
However, that’s not entirely a good thing. The story isn’t the most original, with shades of the Jackie Chan animated series amongst others, there are the usual plot contrivances (do random French heiresses really just invite you home to check out their antique collection?), and Chan’s penchant for slapstick is on full, brash display. While humour is a part of his brand of cinematic action, there’s a difference between being lighthearted and witty and being just plain silly; this is a line that Chinese Zodiac crosses all too often. Many of us haven’t completely outgrown Jackie Chan flicks, but we’ve definitely grown up, and this reviewer isn’t sure if the same can be said of the director/star as some of the antics showcased are rather juvenile. The most egregious example is an odd Pirates of the Caribbean pastiche that comes completely out of left field, when JC and his party are exploring a long-lost island and get ambushed by a multi-national band of pirates, including one made up to look like Jack Sparrow. Then there’s an attack by a hive of bees, complete with the pirates sporting cartoony swollen lesions. It’s scenes like that one that threaten to completely derail whatever little story the film had to begin with, and are frankly unnecessary.
The film has JC working with a team this time around, Mission: Impossible style, but let’s face it, this doesn’t make it any less of a Jackie Chan ego trip. There’s a supposedly lofty message of the preservation of cultural heritage by having all artifacts and national treasures returned to their countries of origin, and Chan includes a slightly obnoxious voiceover over the end credits, but at least his onscreen persona of the mercenary with a heart of gold is likeable as always.
However, what Jackie Chan excels in are undoubtedly cool stunts, and there’s no denying that there’s imagination on display in how said stunts are staged and shot, more than in your average Hollywood actioner, and that the 58-year-old multi-hyphenate is still spry and energetic. Chan one-ups the zorbing scene from Armour of God II in the “unique modes of transportation” department with the “Buggy Rollin Suit”, invented by French extreme sportsman and designer Jean Yves “Rollerman” Blondeau. It’s an exciting opening chase that wouldn’t be out of place in a more upbeat Bond movie, and is very tactile and physical. The major hand-to-hand combat sequence between JC and Alaa Safi’s Vulture (a cool character who’s a little underutilized) is exactly the kind of scene Jackie Chan fans would relish. And yes, while the climactic skydiving sequence was accomplished mostly with blue screen photography, it’s still pretty edge-of-your-seat stuff.
It’s good to see Jackie Chan back in his element in an archetypical “Jackie Chan movie”, warts and all, but this definitely is a movie where the enjoyment is contingent on how forgiving of its star one is willing to be. Good thing then, that the star is Jackie Chan.
SUMMARY: If you’re a Jackie Chan fan, you just might be able to overlook the wanton silliness and enjoy Jackie Chan’s signature stunts and action feats.