Chinese Zodiac, or CZ12 as it is known internationally is, in Jackie Chan’s own words, his “last big action movie” as he takes steps to alter his public persona while peppering his filmography with more dramatic roles. Here, he dives head-first into resurrecting his own Armour of God franchise which last saw an entry with Operation Condor (1991). A loose reboot rather than a direct sequel, Chinese Zodiac boasts a grander international scope than has previously been seen in the franchise, with an intercontinental cast, exotic locales and a dialogue track that is packed with multiple languages. But with an arguably nationalist streak seeping through its storytelling and a cast of relatively unknowns as support for the now 60 year-old performer, can the film conjure up enough of the old Chan magic to overcome these obstacles?
JC (Chan) is a modern-day Robin Hood character who sets out to recover stolen national treasures and return them to their rightful owners. He’s joined by a band of merry men in the form of Korean star Kwon Sang-woo and Mainland actors Liao Fan and Zhang Lanxin, with the latter making her film debut. On their globe-trotting quest to recover the missing bronze heads based on the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac (initially stolen from Beijing by British and French soldiers during the Second Opium War) the team encounter shady business dealings, fiery student protests and hostile pirates throughout their adventure.
Boasting a staggering 15 credits for Chan (achieving a Guinness World Record in the process) it’s clear that this third film in the franchise was a labor of love for its star attraction. After a decade of avoiding huge action productions and dipping his toe into historical dramas, darker thrillers and more low-key comedic roles, fans could be forgiven for having high expectations for a film that seemingly fitted the bill of both a huge comeback and a loving farewell to the genre which made Chan a star. Following increasing (and worrying to some fans) expressions of loyalty to the People’s Republic of China from the man himself, and with the rise of Hong Kong/Mainland co-productions over the past decade providing the bread and butter for the Hong Kong box office, it seems foolhardy to think that Chinese Zodiac would ever turn out to be some blow-out, celebratory, deeply satisfying work from a master filmmaker. The best to hope for was a safe, formulaic film that balanced fluff and politically incorrect silliness but provided, even if to a lesser extent, the dizzying whirlwind action that longtime fans have come to expect from Jackie Chan. At a stretch, it’s all there, although in a somewhat strained and tired capacity, but what really makes Chinese Zodiac a hard sit for any audience member is it’s lack of anything resembling a soul.
The cast, by default, are faceless sketches, all providing shallow, workman like performances, with newcomer Yao Xingtong coming off the worst as a hollow hub onto which Chan projects all the worst dialogue and character moments. Highlighted by the frequent and distracting switching of spoken languages by the cast (shooting the film in English and dubbing the few cast members who didn’t speak the language in post-production would seem to make more sense) are the near-jingoistic speeches whenever the tricky subject of China’s titular treasures and the ownership of them is brought up. Laura Weissbecker, a likeable French actress who appears in a completely unnecessary role in an equally unnecessary sub-plot, is plagued by clumsy and inept writing and shares, with Yao, some of the worst scenes in the film. It really boils down to a case of having far too many characters to keep track off. Instead of collating the traits and character arcs of all the supporting roles into a couple of solid characters we instead have one personality split to accommodate a dozen participants, resulting in a hodgepodge where no relatable personality is to be found.
Chan himself looks tired and uninterested for maybe the first time ever on-screen, with slices of action clearly intended for him to get involved in left for Taekwondo kicker Kwon Sang-woo to dish out. The action partaken by Chan himself is soiled by big but ill-thought out concepts, distracting CGI and mind-numbingly depressing stabs at lazy comedy. When we do get a kick-around from the man during the finale, it’s all a little too late. 90 minutes already down and not a care in the world from the viewer as to how the plot will resolve itself: over the course of the 124 minute running time, how such a simple set-up could get bogged down so easily through messy editing, complicated dialogue and choppy location switches is a stunt in and of itself.
The faults of Chinese Zodiac may be related to the films before it. Both Armour of God (1986) and Operation Condor packed some weak international supporting roles, insensitive comedy and some sublime silliness, in which case, perhaps this third entry is a natural extension. One could argue though, that Hong Kong cinema didn’t have an agenda back then. The category both the prequels fell into was genre cinema, always playful and exuberant with it’s main goals being to thrill, excite and entertain. The goal for Chinese Zodiac it seems is purely to make as much money as possible, and its evidently unconcerned with generating the love, passion or excitement that the previous generation’s cinema of it’s ilk once did. A sad swan-song from a legendary performer, but all-in-all, possibly the bookend needed to shut the door on Chan’s previous illustrious career as a performer and spark the next phase of his career as a veteran actor.
Tom Kent-Williams is a writer, reviewer and co-host at the Podcast On Fire Network currently residing in Birmingham, England. He has been in love with Asian cinema since seeing Akira for the first time and has a slight man-crush on Chow Yun-fat. Hong Kong cinema floats his boat big time, along with synthpop, classic gaming and cups of tea in large mugs.