Review: CHINESE ZODIAC (CZ12) Sounds the Death Knell on Jackie Chan's Action Career

James Marsh, Asian Editor

For his 101st movie, Jackie Chan resurrects his maverick treasure hunter from the Armor of God series to go in search of Chinese relics, only to discover his edge has been replaced by a sickening line in self-aggrandising patriotism.

1986's Armor of God and its 1991 sequel Armor of God II: Operation Condor remain to this day two of Jackie Chan's most successful and action-packed films. The combination of Indiana Jones-style antiquities-based heroics with Chan's signature brand of slapstick comedy, coupled with a dizzying array of death-defying stunts, proved incredibly popular the world over. It is no surprise that Chan is keen to reprise the role, as his star has been on the wane for a number of years, but it appears he has left it all too late.

Chinese Zodiac, aka CZ12, opens with a brief historical prologue, narrated by Let The Bullets Fly's Jiang Wen. When British forces invaded China in 1860, they stole a number of prized Chinese antiquities, including the heads of 12 animal statues from Beijing's Summer Palace. Representing the symbols of the Chinese zodiac (Dragon, Snake, Rooster, Monkey etc.), the bronze busts have long been thought lost, until they begin popping up in auction houses around the world and fetching millions of dollars each time.

Wealthy businessman and antiques collector Lawrence Morgan (Oliver Platt) is desperate to get his hands on the last of the remaining heads, and agrees to hire renowned treasure hunter JC (Jackie Chan) for the job, at a price of $1 million for each head retrieved. Posing as a National Geographic photographer, JC heads to Paris, together with his tech team (Kwon Sang Woo, Zhang Linxin, Liao Fan) to meet with Coco (Yao Xingtong), a Mainland Chinese woman working to bring lost antiquities back to China. After successfully robbing a French stately home of two bronze heads, their path crosses that of Duchess Katherine (Laura Weissbecker), whose ancestors were involved in the raid of the Summer Palace and offers her help.

So begins a series of misadventures as this unlikely collection of international art thieves, bumbling aristocrats and indignant Chinese Heritage spokespersons travel to a remote island in search of the remaining heads. There they encounter pirates, hidden gold, and interminable in-fighting as the ultimate fate of the treasure remains in the balance. Sadly, audiences who came searching for epic stunts and comedic martial arts will be left rather disappointed. However, fans of lengthy multilingual bickering about national pride, the plight of displaced antiquities and assuming responsibility for the actions of our forefathers are in for a treat.

Jackie Chan picked up two Guinness World Records last week for his work on Chinese Zodiac: Most Credits in One Movie, together with Most Stunts Performed by a Living Actor for his body of work. As Actor, Writer, Director, Producer, Cinematographer, Composer, Stunt Coordinator and, most bizarrely, Catering Coordinator, to name just some of his roles, there is no getting around the fact that the film is something of a vanity project for Chan. The problem is, at 58 years of age, Chan is well past his prime and simply not capable of taking on everything that he used to, whether that be his once-impressive stunt work or other, simpler duties.

Save for an inventive, yet relatively underwhelming opening sequence in which JC flees a Russian army base in a roller-suit (for which Chan was trained by the suit's inventor Jean-Yves Blondeau), there isn't much signature stunt work from Chan until about 90 minutes into this two hour movie. He hops across rooftops and clambers up and down walls, but nothing we haven't seen before. It is only when JC finally comes face to face with rival treasure hunter Vulture (Moroccan-born Taekwondo champ turned stuntman Alaa Safi) in the final act that Jackie actually fights someone, and even then it's essentially good-natured sparring rather than a battle to the death.

This precedes a lengthy scuffle through a warehouse as Jackie fends off an army of security guards, but more interesting is the scrap going on elsewhere between JC's teammate Bonnie (the deliciously leggy Zhang Lanxin) and Vulture's girl, Katie (Caitlin Dechelle). By this point, however, most viewers will have switched off, driven away by scene after scene of vile pontificating from Coco, which slowly turns JC's character around from being a money-grubbing mercenary to a crusader for the preservation of Chinese Heritage.

It is not the film's message that is bothersome - after all it is hard to argue against returning pillaged national treasures to their rightful owners - but it is the clumsy, confrontational manner in which the film handles it that is likely to rile audiences and bore them to tears. Chinese Zodiac is shot through with such a hypocritical air of arrogant self-importance that it's difficult to focus on the actual message. Most audiences will likely be wondering why they're listening to Yao label the French (not the British?) as thieves, rapists and murderers, while Chan denounces the people's right to protest, instead of watching him throw himself off a mountain or under a bus.

Part of the problem is that almost every actor on screen is working in more than one language, and in some cases being overdubbed by a number of other performers. Pity poor Korean heartthrob Kwon Sang Woo, who is relegated here to just another face in JC's Cantonese-speaking team, and has precious little to do - although does get a bizarre family subplot randomly injected into the film's final act. French television actress Laura Weissbecker is almost unbearable as a dotty young French duchess, who inexplicably comes along for the ride. Forced to speak in English, French and then suddenly Mandarin late on, she has an uphill struggle to be anything put a punch bag for the Chinese cast, and the execrable dialogue her character is given all but scuppers any possibility of her giving a decent performance.

The same can be said for Yao Xingtong, who is there to beat her breast and denounce anybody who doesn't agree that China's interests should come first, and is perfectly happy to demand foreigners take responsibility for deeds committed more than 150 years ago. Likewise, she spouts a combination of Mandarin, French and then insanely-dubbed English when the script demands it, while often contradicting earlier pleas (from her and other cast members) to please explain what is going on as everyone jabbers away in their native tongue.

At the centre of all this is Jackie Chan, a man whose popularity has been steadily in decline over the past decade or so, despite his desperate efforts to be taken seriously. The most obvious observation here is that he shouldn't have taken on so many roles. The cinematography is ugly, and regularly misses moments of action due to bad framing, the score and soundtrack are instantly forgettable, and the direction is lacklustre, rambling and tonally inconsistent. While onscreen, Chan does what Chan has always done and his performance here is easily his strongest contribution to the film. However, despite appearing as the same affable clown that has won him legions of fans over the past 30 years, his writing is what sinks the project beyond any hope of recovery.

While the earlier Armor of God entries set their sights on emulating Spielberg's Indiana Jones films, the gadgetry, team dynamic and even the film's abbreviated moniker CZ12 show that Chan is now clearly targeting the Mission: Impossible franchise. However, while those films, in particular Brad Bird's Ghost Protocol, regularly left audiences breathless with an endless series of spectacular set-pieces, Chan simply cannot compete.

The film ends with a decent sky-diving sequence shot at the Aerodium Latvia vertical wind tunnel, but it's so nonsensically cro-barred into the narrative that it baffles and infuriates rather than delights. The final moments see a number of celebrity cameos included in a desperate attempt to reconcile with the audience, but it is all too late, as Chinese Zodiac disappears beyond redemption long before its final act almost reluctantly offers a glimmer of the Jackie Chan of old. If this is to be Chan's final action role, as he has promised, it proves a sad swan song, but one that is perhaps long overdue. Chinese Zodiac is awful.

Around the Internet:
  • SatansWolf

    Well this review is rubbish !!!
    Film was great, Makes me wonder if the reviewer saw the movie or just has a downer on Jackie Chan....

  • oraclecow

    now i remember why i never read any movie reviews, bunch of smartasses trying to badmouth a family movie, there's never been a perfect jacky chan movie, yes its true, but the guy knows how to entertain his fans, not oscar goers or anyone else. and he always deliver good family entertainment.

    sigh, when did people started to go to a cinema and break it down to parts to some disgusting objects and comments...

  • lingasaurus

    I just watched the movie and I loved it! Yes some parts weren't as slick but come on! The man is getting on a bit. The comical parts were childish, but hey, I'm a kid at heart and I thought it was good clean fun. Sometimes I think these type of reviews just borders on bitchiness..in my own opinion.

  • Arthur Vandelay

    I just saw the film. And I gotta say. It satistied my expectations of an Armour of God film. The formula is exactly the same as the previous films.

    Big intro action scene with use of innovative technology + establishing of artifacts + heist-like situation + establishing of characters (including cheap foreign bad actors and corny montage) + going to foreign location with silly-as-hell humour and hijinks + stakes raised + fight scenes with groups of people + high-flying stunt in innovative location = Armour of God formula

    The only thing different and annoying to me was the lectures of preserving Chinese heritage. Too damn long-winded and frequent. The CGI didn't bother me because Jackie Chan is 58, come on. The language also didn't bother me because every Jackie Chan film has bad acting from foreign actors. Not surprised at all.

    Anyway, it was an enjoyable film for me. Could've been better, could've been a lot worse.

  • Jacky

    Watched the movie yesterday and I must say it is awesome. Disagree with your biased review. It's a fact that French are thieves. They have no right to auction stolen treasures.

  • J

    I just watched the film yesterday and while James Marsh's views are valid, I don't quite agree that it's a horrendous effort.
    It appeals more to the Asian audience, such as myself. At least where I live (Singapore), most people are bilingual (English & Mandarin) so there was no difficulty in following the plot and dialogues. In fact, the instances where mass translation was done were one of the more hilarious scenes in the show.
    Being multilingual, I could very much understand the English, Mandarin (there was no Cantonese) and French that were used without reading French. The show manages the comedic vibe well in my opinion, although the ending sequences was rather forced and fake.

  • Snail

    Exactly as expected.

  • simian33

    I managed to see the film last night and it does sadly disappoint. Everything mentioned in the review is true. A lot of key moments have already been established or shown in the trailers and posters removing any kind of surprise when they appear in such location. The opening sequence is underwhelming and could have done with tighter editing as well as some logic. I also noticed framing issues but it did not distract too much from the fight scenes. The most annoying aspect is the shifting in different languages and pointless cast choices. There is also large amounts of poor CGI. There is a moment in the jungle that sadly looks like a constructed set and poor CGI. For a JC film there seems to be surprisingly few fight scenes the biggest fight scene appears about an hour in and I have to say it satisfies greatly. JC demonstrates he still is creative in the action department and capable of delivering. Sadly what follows is a terrible scene reminiscent of The Myth or The Touch, instead of a fight finale we get a CGI moment with little to no logic involved. Despite all this the film had elements of nostalgia from the usual JC comedy schtick to the martial arts scene. The film is very light hearted and brisk, shifting from moment to moment and location to location. I enjoyed it but there is obvious disappointment. In fact tonally it is similar to Rob-B-hood.

  • Cyber

    Sad to hear. I've been looking forward to this movie for half a year at least, and will watch it regardless, but I was hoping for an abundance of action. Especially since it's the one movie he's been working on this entire year... with that much time I thought it was bound to be something spectacular! Still looking forward to a lot more of his movies though, even if it's not all action.

  • Roy

    Man, that's one heartbreaking review. Expectations lowered accordingly.

  • tman418

    Well, "Ong-Bak" 2 & 3 proved that it's not always a good thing to give as much control as possible to the action star. But that was Tony Jaa's directorial debut, and he's decades younger than JC. But JC has been in, starred in, and directed many films. And he was in charge of the action and stunts, using his own team of stunt people, for most of his Chinese films. He should be proving that his experience pays off.

    It definitely surprises me that a Jackie Chan directed movie would have "bad framing" for the action sequences. One of the great things that Asian actions films are known for is always capturing the action clearly with steady camera , and many directors film the fight scenes at a higher frame rate because the fighters are so fast and they want to capture the action clearly. I have a hard time believing that a camera person couldn't keep up with Jackie Chan in his older age. And there's no excuse for poor cinematography, considering what he used to accomplish on a shoestring budget back in the day.

    But, I grew up on Jackie Chan. Most of his films have left me in awe. "Rumble in the Bronx" and "Drunken Master II" tie for #1 on my list. And I will buy this movie when it comes out on blu-ray. I was actually very impressed at the movie trailer. Whoever they hired to make the trailer for the movie did a great job.

  • Reminds me of The Touch starring Michelle Yeoh a couple of years back. It was another multilingual co-production that suffered from most of the same elements that are described in this review. But I like Jackie's work so I'll go see this one, even if it's just to pass the time.

  • Mike T

    I think I will watch it as each person has different expectations about movies. There are countless movies I think are crap but rottentomatoes and imdb's reviewers give high ratings and movies that I think are good received low ratings. Saw the trailer and the fight scenes don't look that bad.

  • Arthur Vandelay

    Damn, that hurts to read. I expected the patriotism element but I didn't think it would weigh the film down this bad. Bad acting, cheesiness and crummy story I expected, but reading that the action is badly framed at times and the cinematography is ugly (not surprising, have you seen The Myth?), that hurts. Until I see the film, I don't think I've been hurt this bad since Phantom Menace.

  • Ozimov

    Thanks for the warning!

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