Chinese Zodiac [十二生肖] (2012)
AKA CZ12, Armour of God III (unofficial)
Starring Jackie Chan, Kwon Sang-Woo, Liao Fan, Yao Xingtong, Zhang Lan-Xin, Laura Weissbecker, Alaa Safi, Rosario Amadeo, Caitlin Dechelle, Marc Canonizado, Oliver Platt, Vincent Sze
Directed by Jackie Chan
Expectations: All the excitement.
The couch & warehouse fights:
The real question on everyone’s minds about Chinese Zodiac is whether it recaptures the Jackie magic of old, so I’ll just get right down to it. It does, without a doubt, but the problem is that while Jackie can still clearly perform and choreograph incredible action sequences, he’s only got enough juice left for two fights in the entire runtime of the film. And those two fights come within minutes of each other, so they’re almost like one big sequence. There’s also another fight between Zhang Lan-Xin and Caitlin Dechelle happening during the second Jackie fight, and that one is also all kinds of awesome. So yeah, Chinese Zodiac has some great action, but it’s pretty much all packed into one small section of the film. There are a couple of other martial arts moments, but the key word there is “moments.” It’s frustrating too, as there are situations throughout the film that would easily lead to memorable fights in any other martial arts film. Chinese Zodiac is not so much a classic Jackie film, as it is one that contains elements of Jackie’s greatness sprinkled throughout. You could argue that the idea behind this is the old “quality over quantity” argument, but I dunno… I wanted more fights. 🙂
Then there are the stunts… lots of stunts. Any Jackie fans knows what the man was once capable of, and to a large degree this legacy works against Chinese Zodiac. This incredibly high bar makes it so that even when Jackie Chan does something absolutely incredible, the Jackie fans won’t be all that impressed because they’ve all seen him do better. I don’t want to make it sound like the stunts here aren’t impressive, because they really are, I just think that it’s easy to cross your arms and watch Chinese Zodiac with a scowl because Jackie isn’t exactly doing what he promised he would with Chinese Zodiac. Well, at least it’s not what everyone interpreted his words to mean when he announced the premise of the film.
A couple of months ago, I watched Jackie’s speech at the 2012 Comic-Con. One of his major points about making Chinese Zodiac was that because Hollywood would never consider him to play a superhero, he had to do it himself. Except he had to do it his way, by defying death in creative, fun ways. This is a key piece of information, because many of the high-concept action scenes do have an overwhelming “Jackie as superhero” vibe, instead of the traditional “Jackie as an extraordinary man” feeling. In Chinese Zodiac, Jackie Chan is not just trying to recreate his past glories or live up to his action legacy, he’s attempting to completely surpass them in highly ambitious ways. The finale sequence hits this home rather hard, and while I won’t spoil what it is, even this is somewhat disappointing in the grand scheme of things (while still featuring incredible, inventive stunt work). Jackie, in trying to provide the world — and himself — one last hurrah, has reached too far and gone too grand. A lot of the film’s individual scenes are impressive, but overall it’s a different story. And at the end of the day, I think most Jackie fans would have preferred he stayed more rooted in reality, but at this stage in his career Jackie can do whatever it is Jackie wants to.
Which, judging by Chinese Zodiac, is a ridiculously complicated plot and a lot of broad, over-the-top comedy that doesn’t always hit. The good news is that even if the plot is hard to decipher at times, or some of the comedy falls flat, I overwhelmingly enjoyed watching the film. You just have to let go of everything you want the film to be, and just let it be what it is. It can be hard at times, especially when it gets rather stupid, but I pretty much always found it enjoyable. If you can laugh at two grown women as they beat a pirate over the head with the crusty bones of one of the women’s great-grandfather, then you’ll enjoy the film even in its most absurd moments.
But 90 minutes in, the film takes a hard turn towards awesome, delivering incredible action for the next 15 minutes or so without stopping for breath. Single-handedly, this section gives the film purpose and redeems any and all missteps made earlier. I LOVED this sequence (this would be the “couch & warehouse fights” referenced above), and I can see myself watching and re-watching this scene any time I need a quick fix. Not only does Jackie look fantastic, his main opponent Alaa Safi is phenomenal! Why this guy isn’t in the whole movie, playfully battling Jackie for the zodiac heads at every turn is a question for the ages. Instead, we’re stuck with the inept French dudes that add absolutely zero to the movie. C’mon! There’s no good reason — other than Jackie’s age — why the film isn’t peppered with moments like the incredible action towards the end, as the story would totally allow for it. And as I mentioned before, there are lots of times where a fight would naturally fit, or — perhaps worse — the times when a very quick fight breaks out that does nothing much except get you all excited for nothing. There’s even a deleted scene on the disc that features what is perhaps the most impressive of these small fights, where Jackie and one of his team beat up some henchmen and use car seatbelts and headrests to subdue them. Why isn’t this in the movie?
The film’s other big problem is its story and characters. Instead of focusing on Jackie the entire time, he chooses to surround himself with an entire team that help him achieve his goals. It’s been years since I saw either Armour of God film, but I don’t remember him traipsing around with an entire team. There are also a fair amount of other supporting characters that come and go, making Chinese Zodiac one of the most needlessly over-complicated films I’ve seen in a while. This isn’t helped at all by the film’s simple story, told in such a fractured way that it makes it hard to understand why the characters are where they are and what they’re doing. Perhaps the film was a lot longer at one point, and the intricacies of the story and its characters were lost during the editing process. I will say that this type of limited storytelling does make the film feel somewhat like an ’80s movie, especially when it’s fun in spite of its flaws.
Chinese Zodiac is very unique, though; I have to give it that. It may not have always awakened that intense passion I have for Jackie Chan films, but it did remind me many times why I fell in love with him. And it does this more than the early films I’m currently reviewing my way through, which if nothing else should tell you that, at least in parts, Chinese Zodiac does deliver old-school Jackie Chan thrills. In spite of all my problems, and the film’s dragging mid-section, I did enjoy Chinese Zodiac quite a bit. I’ll definitely have to revisit it when I reach the end of my Jackie Chan series to see how I feel about it within the context of his other modern films. It should be interesting to see what the US release version looks like too (it’s supposed to drop this summer), as I can’t imagine it’ll feature the 15 or so languages spoken throughout the film, or be anything near as long as it is here.
Ultimately, Chinese Zodiac is something of a disappointment, but I did have a rather good time watching it. And that couch fight! And that warehouse fight! ERMAHGERD! So temper those ridiculously high expectations and go into the film with an open mind. Chinese Zodiac is fun, but not necessarily the fun you were expecting.