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maverick treasure hunter from the Armor of God series to go in search of Chinese relics, only to discover his edge has been replaced by a sickening line in self-aggrandising patriotism.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