Director: Jackie Chan
Cast: Jackie Chan, Kwan Sang-Woo, Liao Fan, Zhang Lanxin, Yao Xingtong, Laura Weissbecker, Yoo Sung-Joo, Amedeo Rosario, Alaa Safi, Vincent Sze, Caitlin Dechelle, Chen Bo Lin, Jonathan Lee, Ken Lo, Oliver Platt
Runtime: 2 hrs 3 mins
Rating: PG (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures, Clover Films & InnoForm Media
Opening Day: 20 December 2012
Synopsis: Globe-trotting soldier-of-fortune JC is hired by shady antiques dealers to track down six missing bronze animal-heads by any means necessary. The six bronzes originally formed part of a set of twelve, representing the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, forming part of a fountain in the old Summer Palace outside Beijing; they were looted and dispersed when Anglo-French armies sacked the Summer Palace in 1860.
JC and his crack team of assistants first head to France, where two of the bronzes are believed to be held in a private collection. The operation to ‘liberate’ the bronzes from a heavily guarded Chateau brings JC into an uneasy alliance with Coco, a Chinese student in Paris, who is active in a global movement which campaigns for stolen cultural treasures to be returned to their homelands. Along the way, JC makes an enemy-for-life of Pierre, the chief of staff at the Chateau Marceau, and an unexpected friend of Katherine, a bankrupted aristocrat whose home contains another of the missing bronzes.
The trail next leads JC and his team, now including Coco and Katherine, to a forgotten tropical island in the South Seas, where two missing animal heads are found in a beached wreck. A multi-national band of pirates moves to block the team’s getaway, but JC’s skill and resourcefulness wins the day. Back home, JC is stunned to learn that his employers already had the sixth missing bronze all along, and he sets out to teach them a lesson for tricking him.
Meanwhile the protest movement has persuaded buyers to shun auctions of stolen national treasures, and the shady dealers are threatening to destroy the sixth bronze in public. Will JC’s conscience – and his sense of Chinese national pride – kick in to push him to save the last bronze from destruction? The answer is played out on the slopes of an active volcano ….
Can you blame any Jackie Chan fan for being enormously excited about ‘Chinese Zodiac’? Notwithstanding the fact that the man himself has proclaimed it his last big action film, the movie is also supposed to complete the trilogy that he started back in 1986 with ‘Armour of God’ and continued in the sequel ‘Operation Condor’ five years later. And perhaps the most significant of all, Jackie has promised that it will be a return to the brand of action comedy he perfected in the late 1980s and 1990s – before his banal detour to Hollywood and his subsequent half-hearted crossing back into Chinese cinema.
But you know what they say about high hopes, and indeed this ardent Jackie Chan fan – who rewatched his ‘Operation Condor’ to get ready for this movie – cannot mask his disappointment at what is ultimately a mediocre attempt at trying to recreate his unique brand of cinematic magic. Indeed, even though the trademark characteristics of the franchise (remember how Jackie pops two pieces of gum into his mouth at one go?) are still intact and our beloved Jackie is still his goofy self, the stunts have become a pale shadow of what Jackie used to do – and we’re not just talking about Jackie getting on of age.
As with ‘Operation Condor’, things start off on a high note with Jackie in his much-touted rollerblade suit evading capture from a whole cavalry of Russian soldiers after breaking into a top-secret facility for reasons unknown. Decked out in the robotic-looking suit, Jackie street-luges under a line of army trucks, takes down two soldiers on motorbikes, skates along the ledge of a vertiginous mountain road barrier and barrels down a wide drain turning three hundred and sixty degrees in the process. Sounds exciting no? Unfortunately, it reads more awesome than it looks on screen, and for what was supposed to be the highlight of Jackie’s stunts, comes off slightly underwhelming.
It’s still an invigorating opening, and one that introduces the audience to Jackie’s team – his right hand man Simon (Kwone Sang Woo); his obligatory sexy female assistant Bonnie (Zhang Lanxin); and his tech wiz David (Liao Fan). Wait – did JC become a fan of ‘Mission: Impossible” in the time since “Operation Condor”? It sure looks like it, for what was once a one-man treasure hunting operation has since become a team effort. Not that the additional team members count for much though – as co-scripter and director, Jackie has still placed almost the entire movie’s focus on himself, rendering the rest quite redundant most of the time.
Instead, the movie gets its momentum from the globe-trotting plot, beginning from the chateaus of France to a tropical island in the South Seas to an active volcano in some nondescript part of the world. Employed by a shady corporation in the business of high-value antiques, Jackie and his crew are looking for six of the twelve missing bronze animal heads that form the set of twelve looted from the Summer Palace during the Anglo-French invasion of China in the 1800s. As if four were not enough for the task, Jackie is further joined by a passionate Chinese activist named Coco (Yao Xingtong) leading a movement for the return of looted cultural treasures back to their country of origin and the French aristocrat Katherine (Laura Weissbecker) whose grandfather was one of the men who looted the bronze heads.
It’s almost a carnival by the time Jackie reaches that island in the South Seas where some of the treasure is to be found, and true enough that sequence plays like something right out of ‘Treasure Island’ when a band of pirates led by Captain Jack Sparrow – or rather, someone made up obviously to look like him – turns up unexpectedly to try to snatch the gold. The result is boisterous and colourful fun, but more like something you’d expect to see in a children’s adventure movie than a respectable Jackie Chan film – and let’s just say while we appreciated the chuckles, we had hoped for more finesse.
And before you accuse us of being too finicky, we’d like to say that of all the big action set-pieces of the movie, the one we found most enjoyable was in fact the one which was most low-key. Stripped of his fancy contraptions and all the other unnecessary embellishments – including sets and supporting cast – that sequence just had Jackie taking on a bunch of guys at different locations in an underground laboratory. One truly standout scene had him in a photography studio using the equipment around to take out his opponents as the camera went on flashing – simple, classy, hilarious and more entertaining than seeing him in some rollerblading suit or, for that matter, skydiving in midair atop an active volcano.
The latter is supposed to end the movie with a bang (and erm we do mean this literally), but given that it is a CG-ed sequence (as one can see in the making of and in the end credits), it is more akin to a whimper - not to mention that it feels tacked on merely to please the Chinese authorities. That brings us to our next gripe, which is the overt nationalistic messages that Jackie now finds it imperative to help the Chinese authorities bring across. No longer just content to be Asia’s ‘Indiana Jones’, Jackie now has to reiterate at several points during the movie the “great injustice and disrespect” the Western countries have shown to the Chinese in the past.
Not only does it make the movie more heavy-handed than it ever needs to be, it also exposes his anachronisms as hypocrisy – especially when Katherine is no more than the dumb Western blonde that is a recurrent archetype in many of Jackie’s films. Sure it does contribute to the old-school charm of the movie, but Jackie trying to trumpet the discrimination of his race while relegating the other to a bad stereotype severely tests the goodwill and patience of his audience.
If we’ve seemed to paint a negative picture of ‘Chinese Zodiac’, that’s because we had great expectations of Jackie Chan’s swan song of big action movies. Age has certainly caught up with the star, who in the NG takes, seems to wince a little more and take a little longer to get back on his feet. There’s probably no one else at age 58 who can do what he does in ‘Zodiac’, but we’re disappointed because the movie could have been so much more – at the very least, more amusing and more exciting. It means little to say this is his best action movie in years considering his recent output, but compared to the Jackie Chan of old, this is at best a passably entertaining affair that’s almost instantly forgettable once the credits start rolling. As the capper to his illustrious action movie career, it is nothing less than a downer.
(Like a "condor without wings" as one character puts it to Jackie, this is a middling effort at trying to capture the Jackie Chan glory from of old - only half as funny and nowhere nearly as exciting)
Review by Gabriel Chong