Just when you think the Jackie Chan from of old might have quietly faded into the shadows, the ‘Dragon’ (as his Chinese name alludes) comes roaring back with a blockbuster that he says harks back to the kind of action comedy his fans have come to love about him.

“I’ll keep doing what my fans love as long as I can,” he proclaims proudly at a press conference for his new movie ‘Chinese Zodiac’. Looking a little more weary than before, but still exuding an infectious air of enthusiasm, Jackie – now at 58 years old – refuses to let his age get the better of him.

And by that, he means he insisted on doing all the stunts in the movie by himself – even though he knew any one of them might easily have cost him his life. “I have a pretty good idea what I can accomplish,” he says, “And what I think I’m able to do, I’ll always try my best to get it done.”

So for the sake of this movie, Jackie learnt street luging in a full rollerblading suit designed by Jean-Yves Blondeau, picked up skydiving over the course of two months, and went so close to the peak of an active volcano that his eyes started tearing uncontrollably – but all that is nothing compared to the near back-breaking experience he had rolling down the side of a mountain.

When asked to elaborate on that harrowing experience, the ever-humble Jackie decided to let his co-star Zhang Lanxin describe that fateful day. “Most of the time when Jackie gets injured he just brushes it off quickly,” she says, “But this time, he just stayed motionless for three minutes and asked everyone to move away. And when he finally moved quietly to one corner to examine his injury, I could see that his shirt was all bloodied.”

You might think him foolish to put his life on the line once again – after all, what more does the legendary star need to prove to his fans? But Jackie answers matter-of-factly that it is not about vainglory and about as simple as doing what he knows best.

“When I asked Spielberg how he did ‘Jurassic Park’, he said, ‘Oh it’s simple. You just need to point your camera here and here and use the computer!’” Jackie recounts. “But till today, I haven’t yet figured out how to do it! Then when Spielberg asks me how I do the stunts in my movie, I answered him ‘Oh it’s simple. You just point a camera there and then I really jump!’”

For better or for worse, he knows that his fans haven’t come to a Jackie Chan movie to watch some extras do the dangerous work. So, rather than seeing it as a consequence of the limitations of his action movie star career, he embraces it wholeheartedly, and says that as long as he is able to entertain his fans and win their affirmation, he is content.

Ask him why it has taken so long for him to return to the kind of movies his fans love, and he says that he had been preparing ‘Chinese Zodiac’ for seven years now. “I’ve always wanted to do a movie set around the world of antiques and auctions, but it took me a lot of time to research and find out more about the trade,” he clarifies, “So in the meantime, I was doing movies like Rush Hour 3 and 1911.”

What he learnt in the process has also made him passionate about the subject of displaced antiquities, which he decided to make an empathetic point about in the movie. “It’s ridiculous that one country’s national treasure should be exhibited in the museum of another country,” he says with indignation. “All that talk about cultural understanding is just an excuse – what belongs to one country should rightfully be in that country’s possession!”

And as he took his time to do the appropriate research on the movie, he reveals that the time lag had also changed the makeup of the cast, in particular who would play his sidekicks in the movie. Yes, instead of being a one-man show like the ‘Armour of God’ series of which this is supposedly an unofficial sequel to – ‘copyright issues’, he hints – Jackie is now one of a four-person team, including Lanxin, fellow Chinese actor Liao Fan and Korean actor Kwon Sang Woo.

“I had planned for Huang Xiaoming to be in the movie,” he says, “But then his schedule filled out really quickly before we could book his time. Same for Nicholas Tse and Louis Koo, so I decided to go with a bunch of newer actors this time round.” The upside of it? He saved the trouble of having to shoot around the schedules of his other actors/ actresses, especially since ‘Zodiac’ took months to finish filming. 

Part of the reason why it had taken so long was the fact that the shoot took place in eight different countries. Just the finale alone was shot in four – first in Australia where you’d see the beginning of the skydiving scene, then at the Latvia Aerodium vertical wind tunnel, then to Vanatu for outdoor shots of the active volcano and finally back to Hong Kong where he rolls down the volcano’s slopes.

All that time, Jackie was well aware of the 100 over cast and crew members whose wellbeing he felt personally responsible for. Not only was he game to take on even the smallest roles on the set – among them, that of catering coordinator, which basically was to make sure that everyone had enough food to eat – he also instilled some strict rules on areas to smoke and cleanliness.

“I personally made sure that the extras were paid according to the terms of their contract,” he says, “Once when I checked, I realised that some of them were paid less and I made sure to get down to the root of who was responsible for it.” His attentiveness did not escape Lanxin, who adds that he was giving instructions as a director even while personally sweeping the floor of the set.

Of course, Jackie’s attention to detail was also evident during the filming itself – but coupled with that was an incredible amount of patience. A national taekwondo champion who has since moved into modelling and is now making her feature film debut here, Lanxin recalls how she took about 37 times just to get one scene in her one-on-one fighting sequence in the movie right - and all the while Jackie was simply giving her advice as patiently as he was at the beginning.

Like many of his fans, she hopes that ‘Zodiac’ will not be his last action movie. About that, Jackie explains that it doesn’t mean he won’t be doing any more stunts in his movies; rather, he’ll be opting for movies with a stronger dramatic element – which is likely to be the direction that his next film, ‘Police Story 2013’, will take. 

And because no one has dared yet to cast him in a romance, he still has the right to joke about it. “CZ13 will have my character in a love triangle with Lanxin and Yao Xingtong’s characters,” he laughs. “If anyone is willing to do that movie, I’m even willing to take a pay cut for it!”

Even at 58, there are no shortage of roles for the actor who had built his career on the stuff of ‘Zodiac’. His calendar is already lined up for another movie in April and yet another in July, so much so that he cannot quite tell you when it will be before he manages to take another idea out of his mind (and there are a few of those he says) and develop it into a movie.

No matter the film, he says that his fans come first. “What I do isn’t about making money,” he says, “Most importantly, I want moviemaking to be fun and I want to be able to entertain my fans.” That’s the spirit which has been keeping this ‘Dragon’ alive and kicking all this time. 

Text by Gabriel Chong; Photos by Linus Tee

"CZ12" opens on 20 December 2012 and is reviewed here