HONG KONG 2012
CHINESE ZODIAC AKA SAP JI SANG CIU
OUT NOW ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 124 min
During the Second Opium War in China, foreign soldiers made off with many priceless Chinese relics, among them 12 bronze heads in the form of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. The MP Corporation hopes to recover the lost relics in order to auction them off for millions of Euros, and enlists the services of treasure hunter and adventurer J.C. in retrieving them. J.C.’s quest takes him to Paris, where he enlists the aid of loco archaeology student Coco. Along with his associates Simon, David, and Bonnie, J.C. and Coco uncover one of the heads in the mansion of wealthy local woman, Catherine, who subsequently insists on accompanying them for the remainder of the quest, due to her desire to uncover the lost remains of her great grandfather, one of the major looters of the lost Chinese relics….
Jackie Chan, with mixed results, has been moving away of late from the action comedies packed with his own stunts, a kind of film he virtually made his own. Realising his age [he’s now 58!] and that he just can’t go on doing what he’s been doing since the 70’s, he’s been trying out more different kinds of roles which require more acting and less martial arts fighting and death defying stunts. He was talking about Chinese Zodiac for quite a while before he embarked on making it. The project was meant to be a return to ‘classic’ Chan just for one film and the very last film in which he would do all of his own stunts. You may not have guessed it from the title and synopsis, especially as Chan’s character is now called J.C., but it’s supposedly a follow-up to Chan’s The Armour Of God and The Armour Of God 2: Operation Condor, both made when Chan was at the peak of his powers. The films, starring Chan as a guy called Asian Hawk, are Indiana Jones-influenced adventures with more comedy, the first one being famous as the film where Chan almost died from a hole in his head when he missed a jump. I wouldn’t say the two pictures are amongst Chan’s very best, but they’re still a tall order to follow considering Chan’s age and the fact that, while he still puts your average 20 year old to shame, he’s not the man he used to be. Perhaps as the film was being made, he realised that, and maybe even realised that Chinese Zodiac would be compared unfavourably to those, so he made the connections vague, resulting in a slightly confusing enterprise which doesn’t seem to know if it’s another Asian Hawk movie or not!
Being a huge fan of Chan, I would love to say that Chinese Zodiac is a glorious, nostalgic throwback to the great days of the man, and that the overall reception, which is mixed to downright negative, is unwarranted. However, it’s really a rather awkward and badly flawed film that certainly has its highlights but seems to have been seriously weakened not so much by Chan ‘s age but the fact that he appears to have done virtually everything on this film [including catering!], earning him a place in the Guinness Book of Records as Most Credits in One Movie. The fact that there are no less than six [including, of course, Chan] cinematographers should alert you to the fact that the film’s going to be a bit of a mess, and to be honest it is, so much so that it’s sometimes hard to tell that Chan’s old scriptwriters Edward Chan and Stanley Tong co-wrote the film. Of course the script isn’t the most important in a Chan film, but when it’s frequently very poor as it is here, one tends to just sit there twiddling one’s thumb waiting for the next action scene. There sure is fun to be had with Chinese Zodiac, but it really should have been so much better than it is. One feels at times that Chan made the film more for himself than his audience.
Actually the first third is very good indeed. An interestingly sepia-tinged flashback sets up the background about Chinese artifacts being stolen, then we switch to the present day and have to suffer some painfully bad dialogue between the bad guys, I mean it really is bad despite the unusual presence of Oliver Platt. Never mind, we soon get a great action sequence with Chan infiltrating and escaping from a Russian military base by way of a skate suit which is designed in such a way that the wearer is able to maintain their momentum whether in a standing or lying position. The chase spills onto a mountainside road, and Chan does some amazing stuff here that proves that, sometimes, nothing is more exciting than watching Chan risk his life for his art. He clings to the front of a speeding motorbike, slides along a barrier with a big drop below, and is almost trapped between two lorries before sliding underneath one of them before finally speeding down a pipeline into thin air…and into a net carried by one his aides in a helicopter. This really is amazing stuff that sure got my adrenalin going, Chan doing what he does best, and soon after he clambers and jumps all over a huge building that really shows that, even if it looks like he may have been aided by a wire in places, he’s still got it!
The pace of Chinese Zodiac really is fast and furious for quite a while, not even slowing down for much comedy, though Chan doesn’t seem to want to fight. Nothing hugely wrong with that – the first two movies mostly relegated the martial arts to the final quarters – but I was left wishing for some kind of brawl or indeed something good of any kind when the action switches from Paris to a tropical island and there’s endless chasing around with some comical pirates. Aside from one great gag combining tension with humour involving a bazooka rocket hanging from a tree, the sequence is neither very funny nor very exciting and just goes on forever while being mostly bereft of good ideas. A log-slide down a hill just feels like a theme park ride and is accompanied by a rip-off of one of the musical themes from Pirates Of The Caribbean. Thereafter the film becomes more a case of Chan telling us how bad the stealing of historical relics is, and it’s clearly a subject close to Chan’s heart, but he forgets his film is actually supposed to be a rollicking comic action adventure for quite a while until, eventually, he gives us some cracking fight action. There’s a good comic brawl with French taekwondo virtuoso Alaa Safi on some settees [it’s much better than it sounds], and when Chan runs around a warehouse besting henchmen and using things from a mirror frame to an umbrella to fight with, it really is like going back in time. The climax involves skydiving and a volcano and relies partly on obvious blue-screen work but it’s certainly much better put together than, for instance than that shoddy sequence in Shoot ‘Em Up!
Chan has always liked to insert moral messages in his films, and it’s nice to have him play a character who begins as a bit of a rogue, but here he preaches in a really heavy-handed way, and one can only laugh in the wrong way at some of the lines he gives himself, like
“No. As media, we can only report the facts. We cannot exaggerate and make things up”.
The humour that is intentional in the film is mostly variations on old gags i.e. Chan accidently putting his hand underneath a woman’s skirt, and is never allowed to develop into the full-blown comic set-pieces that used to be such a major part of his films except for an amusing Doberman chase and fight. Small bits and pieces of Armour Of God 2 especially seem to recur, and again we have three pretty girls to traipse around with Chan and bicker with each other. The acting is actually better than normal for a Chan film, with largely unknown French actress Laura Weissbecker, who has a very bright screen presence, faring especially well, though it’s Zhang Lanxin who gets a major fight, going toe-to-toe with stuntwoman Caitlin Dechelle in a good battle. There’s a distinct Mission Impossible feel about some of the film what with all the breaking into places and assistance from J.C.’s mates with their high-tech gadgetry. There really is a fair bit of filler though, for example J.C. trying to get Coco back together with her husband. For God’s sake Jackie, this is a Jackie Chan movie, we don’t care about all this sentimental stuff! Chan, given carte blanche to do what he wants, just tries to put too much into his film and it really suffers for it. There is some good stuff in it, but too much just either doesn’t come off or feels out of place.
Chinese Zodiac was cut by 13 min for its US release but we get the full version here in the UK. Normally that would be a cause for celebration, as some of Chan’s Hong Kong movies have been terribly cut in the past for Western consumption, but I have a feeling that the cut version of Chinese Zodiac, which Chan edited himself, and which for a start tones down the heavy element of Chinese nationalism, may actually be a better watch. I watched the subtitled version [the UK Blu-ray commendably has both] and it’s a rather odd mix of people speaking in Chinese, English and French. Normally this would be more convincing than the dubbed version, but take a look at people’s mouths and most of them are actually speaking English. I wanted to love Chinese Zodiac, and ended up not even liking nearly as much of the unfocused, messy and self-indulgent [in the wrong way] film as I wanted to, but it was intermittently very entertaining, and there were times it did take me back to when I first discovered Chan’s movies and would sit there open-mouthed in astonishment at what he was doing on-screen, which means it was still just about worth it.