Chinese Zodiac

tn_cz12To 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 know this is old fashioned but in my opinion Jackie should always look serious on the poster
I know this is old fashioned but in my opinion Jackie should always look serious on the poster

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 at 1:18 pm and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “Chinese Zodiac”

  1. I pretty much agree with you on this one. I saw it about a year ago when I imported the Blu-ray. Back in the day we would have declared this a bad Chan movie, now-a-days it’s considered a pretty decent one. I absolutely hated the middle portion on the island.

    Unless they cut out of the US release, surprised you didn’t touch on my most-hated aspect of the film, the ultra preachy character of Coco who never misses a beat to lecture people about how China keeps getting screwed by foreigners (via their ancestors stealing stuff from them generations ago).

    As objectively bad as it is, I still felt Oliver Platt and some of the crazy action set pieces make it worth a watch (but only if you’re a fan of Chan’s work).

  2. Isn’t this supposed to be part of the ARMOUR OF GOD series? The character sounds like the same one from those two films.

  3. Yes this is part of the Armour of God series. Like Operation Condor he has a different name, here he’s named Jackie Chan rather than Asian Hawk or Condor. I’d like to think over the years he kept changing his handle and now he doesn’t care anymore so he’s back to using his real name.

  4. I actually watched the second movie in this series a long time ago, but the only thing I really remember is the scene where Jackie Chan accidentally find himself in a woman’s bathroom as she’s taking a piss

  5. Griff, you really should take another look at OPERATION CONDOR. It’s one of Jackie’s best.

  6. Yeah, the last act of Operation Condor has some of my all-time favourite fight scenes, it’s just relentlessly inventive.

  7. I am also partial to the hotel shootout but it is difficult to top that wind tunnel sequence.

    That said, I know many hold Chan’s Armour series in high-regards but I feel as films their parts are better than their wholes. Armour of God is pretty bad (and boring) until the climax which is arguably the greatest non-first-Police Story stuff Chan has ever done, really great stuff and makes up for the rest of the movie being a slog. Armour of God II: Operation Condor is more consistent but the paper-thin plot keeps getting side-tracked and just kinda meanders till it gets to the end, but unlike the first one Condor has a whole bunch of really fun set pieces (like an even better than the first one car chase) that makes it more fun to watch than the first. But then there is nothing in Condor that comes to close to the climax of Armour of God.

    What I’m trying the say is that the mixed bag (but mostly bad) of aimlessness that is CZ12 is pretty consistent with the quality of the prior 2 entries except the set-pieces aren’t as good.

  8. Jareth Cutestory

    March 27th, 2014 at 7:51 am

    You didn’t miss anything by bailing on BADGES OF FURY, Vern. Though not as bad as Jackie Chan at his worst, it was a pretty dire attempt at action comedy. Empty over-stylization drained the action of any immediacy and the attempts at humour were hackneyed at best and offensive at worst.

    In fact, I’m going to spoil the closest thing to a joke this movie has: The wife that Li’s character is always talking about throughout the movie? Yeah, the punchline at the end is that Zhang Zilin (aka Miss China/Miss World 2007) is married to grumpy old Jet Li. And despite Li’s brusque demeanour around his colleagues, he and his wife act like frolicking honeymooners when they’re together. Cue laugh track.

    The Korean film THE THIEVES is a much more successful attempt to cobble together a hyperstylized comedy action film.

  9. Are you ever going to review THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, Vern? I know it’s not exactly what we wanted, but it is the first time Jackie and Jet Li ever worked together and I thought it was alright for a family fantasy adventure, and there is some actually good fight work in the film:

  10. I’ve only seen one of the Operation Condor/Armour of the Gods movies, but I think in the U.S. the first and second film are switched. Which is the one with the really offensive Muslim stetreotypes, because that’s the one I’ve seen.

  11. “Which is the one with the really offensive Muslim stetreotypes, because that’s the one I’ve seen.”

    the one with the pissing lady of course, not the most tasteful of films, is it?

  12. In defense of Jackie’s first two ARMOR OF GOD films, I would say this is the silent movie influence showing. The acting has never been subtle in his movies, especially during this his golden age. You have the big facial expressions and exaggerated body language, but also the characterizations seem to come straight out of old Hollywood comedies like those Hope and Crosby “Road” pictures. Not to excuse the stereotyping, but the bungling Arab “villains”, the “unga-bunga” natives, and various damsels in distress crying out for Jackie to rescue them all have a certain… charm(?) to be truly offensive.

    That said, CHINESE ZODIAC is indeed a big disappointment. The setpieces Vern describes have some of the old JC electricity, but the highs aren’t so high anymore and the lows are way lower. All the thin plotting and characters that seemed charmingly retro in the past aren’t so tolerable now, especially with an undercurrent Chinese nationalism(which seems to have been soft-pedaled in the US version I saw, which I think was about 10-15 minutes shorter).

  13. I think Jackie himself has said he has been influenced by classic silent comedies, and you can almost always see this in his performance, so I see where you’re coming from. I still remember enjoying the Armour of the Gods, because it had a number of superlative action sequences. Some of the material in-between was a little questionable. But that’s not uncommon in Jackie Chan’s movies. There are only a handful that are still tops even when the action slows down.

  14. I guess this is as good a time as any to do a quick installment of MAJESTYK MAKES AMENDS 2014. Now, in the past, I have said some inflammatory things about Mr. Chan concerning how monstrously annoying I find him. But on the sly, I have a fairly sizable Jackie Chan collection, and I’ve been slowly making my way through the golden-era films I’ve missed thus far. And, sadly, my position hasn’t changed: He’s an annoying little shit. I hate his so-fucking-pleased-with-himself facial expressions, his “Ain’t I a stinker?” sexism, his refusal to just stick to a simple goddamn action plot without a whole bunch of inanity making every movie like a half-hour too long… Basically his whole persona. I just don’t find him funny, and that’s a problem when a dude insists on turning every movie into an opportunity for shameless mugging. He’s like watching Robin Williams on The Tonight Show, all flop sweat and secret self-loathing.

    But as I’ve settled into my disdain for his acting chops, my admiration for his skills as an onscreen martial artist have only grown. I recently finally watched POLICE STORY 2, and even a comparably minor set-piece like the fight on the playground has little bits of inspired choreography and physical performance that nobody else would think of. He knows just what to do to sell every beat of the action so that it tells a story. Jackie and his team are pure poetry in motion…and I guess that’s how I like him. As long as he’s moving, he’s magical. Once he stops, the spell is broken, and I want to strangle him again.

    Sadly, that means that, as his physical form deteriorate and he relies more and more on his supposed charisma, I’m not gonna be able to watch any of his movies anymore. Something like this CHINESE ZODIAC where even his fans admit that the action doesn’t pay off sounds like pure torture to me. It’s best if Jackie and I part ways on good terms.

  15. Vern, sounds like you haven’t missed much on Jackie’s output. This formula started in the ’90s, maybe with more cgi experiments in the last 10 years, around THE MYTH. I love it. I love that he’s being chased by dogs so he barks at the dogs.

    Also this is ARMOR OF GOD III. JC is actually Asian Hawk. Didn’t you notice he did that catching a mint/pill in the air? What are those things anyway?

  16. Majestyk – you should watch CRIME STORY. Not only is it a gritty cop-movie, but Jackie displays some serious acting chops as well as action prowess.It´s also a pretty suspenseful film and a great slice of cop action cinema

  17. I haven’t seen this yet, but i recently tried to rewatch Armour of God and had to turn it off, i didn’t even make it beyond the opening 10 minutes. Apart from the fighting it’s just excruciating, which brings me to Badges of Fury. They should have called it Audience of Fury, because i find it hard to imagine any group of people watching that absolute load of trash without sparking a riot and burning the cinema down. It’s unforgivably awful. I think i saw about half an hour before the copy i was watching refused to go any further. I think the dvd player was somehow trying to spare me by refusing to play on. Not funny at all, but the director seemed to think he was making the world’s most hilarious comedy. I know HK comedy’s incredibly hit and miss to non-Chinese audiences, but Badges of Fury can’t possibly be considered in any way funny by anyone of any nationality.

  18. The best Jackie movie – one that manages to combine humor and violent action – is DRAGON’S FOREVER.

  19. wad

    I wont argue with you shutting it off, but I do implore you to at least watch the climax (last 30 minutes give or take). It is seriously some of the best material Chan has ever put onto screen. It might even beat the mall climax from Police Story, it’s so good.
    -Though Police Story still edges out because we care more about the characters and story in that one

  20. Anyone seen POLICE STORY 2014?

  21. Seems like POLICE STORY 2014 is on YT


  22. I don´t disagree that the comedy of Chan´s films can be a bit much. But its for the most parts the ones he did with Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung , where the narrative stops to give room for “comedy” in which a bunch of perverts is stalking and molesting a poor woman. I think the humor in the POLICE STORIES is a lot better handled and certainly a lot less tasteless and creepy.

  23. POLICE STORY 2 has the police captain who can’t stop farting in the elevator and multiple scenes mocking a deaf-mute. I’ll concede that it’s a little better on the feminist front, as it gives the supposedly hilariously neglected girlfriend character from the first film just the tiniest sliver of agency by letting her briefly dump Jackie’s annoying ass. Of course, we’re expected to feel sorry for him, but all I could think was “Run, girl! Get out while you can!”

    Of course, Jackie is fucking Daniel Day-Lewis compared to Sammo, who can direct amazing scenes in the 15 or so minutes per movie when he’s not being the least funny human being to ever live.

  24. But the deaf mute kicks Jackie’s ass. Who´s laughing now?! Anyway… I don´t condone the discourses surrounding women on display in these films (and I am talking about HK 80´s action/comedy films in general here) but i find them fascinating to watch and makes for absurd viewing because everything besides the action goes against all common sense and taste.

  25. I take it as the price of entry with these movies. You just have to hope the balance is favorable between amazing action and excruciating comedy. Usually I can make do, but every now and then I catch a SHANGHAI EXPRESS or MADAME CITY HUNTER and I’m forced to question the choices I’ve made in my life.

  26. POLICE STORY has that scene where he’s been demoted to working a switchboard, and there’s a funny slapstick sequence where he’s struggling to answer all these phones and eat his noodles at once, which takes a lot of skill and timing to get right…then its ruined by one of the calls he’s taken being from a woman who’s reporting that she’s been raped. COMEDY~!

  27. Majestyk, try being a woman and watching these shows. You not only question the choices for your life, but feel a little like you’ve betrayed the sisterhood. I generally stay away from Chan’s movies for those reasons, which pisses me off because I like the action and I just wish they could pull their head out of their ass long enough to realize what idiots they’re being.

  28. You have my sympathies, Maggie. It’s hard out there for a female badass cinema enthusiast.

  29. Hey Vern, for HK Jackie from the past decade, check out New Police Story and Rob-B-Hood, both by Benny Chan and better than Little Big Soldier and Chinese Zodiac. New Police Story might be Jackie’s darkest film, but it still has a bit of the wacky comedy and melodrama of the Police Story films, which is weird for how dark it is. I think the film is too slow, but it’s a solid thriller. Not great but pretty watchable, which is plenty good enough for something intended to string action scenes together. Kind of reminded me of something like Law Abiding Citizen, but with great action. The fights are unremarkable for Jackie, but it’s still great work for any other human, and there’s an incredible, insanely destructive sort of chase scene in the middle of the film. And in an early scene we’ve got one of the finest explosions in film history. Hope you get a chance to watch this one.

    Rob-B-Hood is a sillier movie so it has more of the crazy, playful martial arts Jackie is known for. Some really great, inventive work in here. It’s basically a Jackie Chan version of 3 Men and a Baby and a lot of the humor fell flat for me, but it’s a solid watch. Feel it could have been really great if it were more streamlined.

    Both films are slick and well made, with memorable cinematography and production design. Leagues above the mostly sloppy craft of Chinese Zodiac. Wish Benny Chan directed that one. I haven’t seen too many of his films but after those movies with Jackie he directed Invisible Target which I thought was one of the best action films of the past decade and I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more praise. Hope you get a chance to watch all three of these films. Luckily, unlike most Hong Kong movies worth watching, they’re all available on quality Blu-rays in the US.

  30. Looking for Jackie Chan’s new film SKIPTRACE.

  31. Trailer for Jackie Chan’s upcoming KUNG FU YOGA.

    (Eng Sub) 161106 《功夫瑜伽》Kungfu Yoga Movie Trailer 1 张艺兴 Zhang Yixing LAY

    电影《功夫瑜伽》先导预告片 大年初一打笑全世界 Casts: 成龙 (Jackie Chan) 李治廷 (Aarif Rahman) 张艺兴 (Lay) 母其弥雅 (Miya) 张国立 (Zhang Guoli) Sonu Sood Amyra Dastur Disha Patani Director: 唐季禮 ...

  32. So who thoughts that GQ would be the go to place for really good interviews?

    Jackie Chan’s Plan to Keep Kicking Forever

    GQ sent Alex Pappademas to Beijing to interview the king in his castle—a vast martial-arts complex as awesome and over-the-top as Jackie Chan himself.

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