To be frankly honest I haven’t kept up with the modern Jackie Chan pictures, unless you count THE KARATE KID, which I don’t. I had to really think about it to remember that LITTLE BIG SOLDIER (from 2010) was the last one I saw, and it looks like you’d have to go back pre-RUSH HOUR (to ’98’s WHO AM I?) to get to another non-American one I’ve seen.
But 2012’s CHINESE ZODIAC just came out on video here, and he directed that one, they were making a big deal about it possibly being his last full-on action movie, so maybe it’s a good one to reacquaint us with why we love Jackie?
Eh… maybe a little. J.C. plays “J.C.,” leader of a highly-skilled, Mission:Impossibly-equipped band of thieves who sneak, fight and steal ancient treasures to auction off and/or create counterfeits of. He apparently has some kind of code, because he accuses a rival of starting a deadly border war when his theft of an artifact was blamed on a neighboring country. But it’s not until he gets close to an idealistic student group (under a fake identity as a National Geographic reporter) that he starts getting a THE PHANTOM/ONG BAK type instinct that these objects belong to the cultures that they’re meaningful to, not to the rich guys they’re valuable to. Then he gets kind of a patriotic fervor for these masks his boss is after, bronze castings of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac.
So no, CHINESE ZODIAC is not to ZODIAC as CHINESE HERCULES is to HERCULES. Sorry everybody. I was disappointed when I found out too, but we can’t have everything in this life.
I figured if it was gonna be bad I would know right away, like when I recently tried to watch BADGES OF FURY starring Jet Li and hit eject shortly after they started making EXPENDABLES type jokes about the actors’ other movies. CHINESE ZODIAC has some broad jokes and weak digital effects right off the bat, but it also has a pretty crazy opening action sequence that hooked me. J.C. breaks into a “MILITARY BASE” (as the onscreen text helpfully explains – no wonder there are all those military guys in this base) to steal something and escapes on rollerblades and a suit of armor covered in wheels on his back and arms. Apparently this suit was designed by a French guy known as “Rollerman,” who trained Jackie to use it. It turns into a high speed downhill car chase and street luge. He’ll lay on his stomach but can flip over, stand up, jump on a motorcyclist’s back, slide under a car, go up a tunnel wall, go off a jump… it’s a great collection of stunts, and a cool enough idea that it would be exciting even if it was all fake.
Unfortunately, the rollersuit scene metaphorically passes the ball to the middle part of the movie, which proceeds to totally fumble it and then fart and then say “Did I do that?” in an Urkel voice, and not even a very good one.
For a little bit it’s exciting to see Jackie back in action, doing his nimble proto-parkour thing, running up walls, climbing and hopping over things. J.C. is the expert who goes in while his young partners stay out in the car and talk to him over a headset. He seems very competent, but he still does all the goofy scared faces like when he plays a regular guy in over his head.
After the novelty of his cool gadgets (I like the gloves that make a laser scan of the zodiac masks so his partners can instantly do a 3D printing of it) wears off it’s a dull slog through the kind of convoluted plot we would forgive if it was just made to link together action scenes, but there aren’t enough of them to really need linking. Even when they start, say, swinging on giant logs, they’ve been confined HATCHET-style to a fake forest set too long for me to want to look at this shit anymore.
And the whole aesthetic is cheesy. It has pretty much my least favorite type of score, the one where it’s really busy and just churning through half-assed regurgitations of cliches. “Here’s a spy movie part, here’s a funny part, here’s an adventurey part…” There are awkwardly timed scene transitions, expositional dialogue added in with obvious ADR, a weird combination of filmed-in-English and dubbed-into-English, some weird greenscreening and ugly, generic scenery. I was about to call it a day when it finally started to pick up in the last half hour or so, where almost all of the movie’s martial arts take place.
Now finally we get the kind of fight choreography the Jackie Chan Stunt Team is known for. These fights are carefully designed to take advantage of the locations and available props: running over and under tables, kicking or riding wheeled stools across the room, slamming hands in sliding doors. A fight makes its way into a photography studio, where Jackie uses a light reflector umbrella for hand-to-hand, then graduates to the camera itself, on a tripod. He swings it around and the camera flashes and later goofy photos of him are spit out of a giant printer. So I’m happy. I love this type of stuff. Not enough fight choreographers are looking for these type of gimmicks. They don’t have to be funny or even absurd, they just need to add flavor to the fight, a little something that makes it stand out from what you’ve seen before.
The highlight is one of those scenes that defies the conventional wisdom about fights needing to be integrated into the plot. Here JC runs into Vulture (Alaa Safi), the douchey white treasure hunter, and they end up dueling with the rule that they can’t leave the couch or chair they’re sitting in. So they have a full on fight while going to great lengths to stay sitting or standing on the furniture, or at least touching it.
The climax is also enjoyably crazy: the bad guys decide since no one has bid on the dragon mask they have to punish the world by dumping it into an active volcano. J.C. has to skydive and fight his rivals for the mask while plummeting toward a lake of lava. No, I don’t think Jackie pulled a Swayze and jumped out of a plane for real, but you can see on the end credits outtakes that they used a wind tunnel and that’s why their mid-air flights look so real. They kinda are!
So I gotta give the movie credit for that. I went in accepting that Jackie would have more doubles and effects shots than in the old days. I was okay with that, but didn’t notice as much of it as I expected, and then the credits convinced me that actually he still did most of it. In fact, you seem him doing a stunt for one of the guys he beats up in the movie!
Oliver Platt is in a couple scenes in the “surprise American in Hong Kong film” slot, aka the Paul Rudd in GEN Y COPS. And what the fuck, wikipedia says that Seattle’s own king of smooth jazz Kenny G has a cameo as a pilot? If that’s not somebody fucking with us I’m sorry to say that I didn’t catch that.
I can’t quite recommend you watch this movie, but if you do I suggest you keep it on for the credits. After the usual stunts-gone-wrong outtakes there’s a collection of action from throughout Jackie’s career, set to a dubstep track. It just goes on and on and reminds you of what a hell of a career this guy has had. Then at the end he’s talking directly to the audience and thanking us for watching. No, thank you Jackie, for your years of service, and for recently rolling down a hill in a rollerblade suit, performing fights in mid-air and filming yourself standing on the edge of a volcano.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.