Jackie Chan makes something of a return to roots with “Chinese Zodiac”, a conservatively constructed but nevertheless enjoyable throwback to the Asian Hawk adventures seen in his “Armour of God” films. If “Chinese Zodiac” isn’t the instant classic of globe-trotting adventure movies that those films were, it is at least proof positive that the burden of age and the lasting effects of severe injuries do not affect Jackie Chan to the same degree as they do the rest of us mere mortals!
In addition to directing, co-writing, producing, and performing just about every other major duty found on a film set, Jackie Chan leads the way as the heroic adventurer J.C. The one-of-kind energy that flows through Jackie’s veins has never once been diluted by even his weakest films – cough – “The Tuxedo” – cough – and “Chinese Zodiac” is no exception.
The fact that Jackie practically assembled the film single-handedly, and the ease with which he carries the film while in front of the camera is all the more impressive. American actor Oliver Platt assumes the role of the duplicitous Lawrence Morgan, who provides many of the obstacles for our hero to overcome over the course of his adventure. Kwon Sang-woo, Liao Fan, and Zhang Lanxin provide our hero with support in the form of his compatriots Simon, David, and Bonnie, while Helen Yao handles the role of gung-ho archeology student Coco. Rounding out the cast is French actress Laura Weissbecker as Catherine, who becomes involved in J.C.’s adventures, which connect to her families distant past.
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 enlist the services of treasure hunter and adventurer J.C. in retrieving them. J.C.’s quest takes him to Paris, where he able to enlist the aid of loco archeology 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.
The thing that has set Jackie Chan apart from virtually every action star is not only his willingness to perform his own stunts, but the extent to which his films have incorporated the most incredible and often most dangerous stunt work imaginable. Whether it’s sliding down a forty foot pole wrapped in Christmas lights in “Police Story”, plummeting head first from a three-story bell tower in “Project A”, or his near-fatal fall from a tree in “Armour of God” (ironically, a very minor stunt by his standards), Jackie has quite possibly put his own neck on the chopping block more times than anyone else in the history of show business (it’s a wonder that the song “Pain Redefined” by Disturbed has yet to be played over the outtakes that follow his films).
From the very beginning of “Chinese Zodiac”, the viewer is treated to his latest death-defying action sequence, involving J.C.’s infiltration and escape from a Russian military base. Jackie goes about evading his pursuers by way of a skate suit, a modern hybrid offspring of rollerblading and the luge. The suit is designed in such a way that the wearer is able to maintain their momentum whether in a standing or lying position, and true to form, our hero chooses to make his escape by rolling down a two-way mountainside road mostly head-first. Helmet or no helmet, there’s simply no getting around the kind of pant-wetting suspense that comes from Jackie sliding around and under military vehicles, clinging to both the front and rear of a speeding motorcycle for dear life, or teetering on the edge of a guardrail overlooking a sixty-foot drop. Who could ask for a better start? Right off the bat, the film adrenalizes its audience with a vivid reminder of just why the Jackie Chan movie is a genre unto itself.
A similar such sequence later on in the film unfortunately doesn’t quite carry the same impact. Jackie and his comrades find themselves forced to evade pursuit on a mountainous island by sliding down a cliffside aboard a thirty foot log, with the sequence being accomplished through some decidedly unconvincing green screen effects. The end result more resembles a ride at Universal Studios than a chase sequence in an Indiana Jones-style adventure film, and is easily the weakest sequence in the entire film. A skydiving sequence near the end of the film is far better at crafting the hybrid of CGI and stunt work that the earlier scene was striving for, though the extremely rough landing is what really sells the danger of the fall.
Oddly enough, “Chinese Zodiac” is also probably the leanest film in Jackie’s career in terms of martial arts, with the only real fight in the entire film coming in the third act. But that doesn’t mean Jackie lets his fans down in this department. One of the factors that has always stood out about the combat in Jackie Chan movies has been the peculiar innocence he injects into his battles and the fact that the combatants often carry a mentality more akin to a game of tag than a live or death duel. The sequence starts out with Jackie and his opponent, played by French taekwondo virtuoso Alaa Safi, trading blows with the understanding that the loser will be whoever loses contact with the furniture they are sitting on first.
Only Jackie Chan could take what reads as such a childish premise on paper and give it the level of impact and intensity it ultimately has in the film, and like many of the best action sequences he’s done, the final brawl escalates into a free-for-all that sees Zhang Lanxin in a one-on-one with stuntwoman Caitlin Dechelle, while Jackie himself is forced to take on every other henchman pretty much single-handedly. But that’s just Jackie – never taking the easy way to victory when he can take -and test his wits in- yet another bumpy ride!!
Despite some less than stellar green screen effects and the occasional moment of head-scratching oddity, “Chinese Zodiac” is a mostly enjoyable treasure-hunting adventure film. It seems that there’s no amount of abuse that’s too much for Jackie’s body to handle, and the fact that he still handles action films as easily as he does in “Chinese Zodiac” is truly remarkable, given just how much he’s had to handle. There’s substantially less martial arts action than most fans are probably expecting from the film, but “Chinese Zodiac” is best enjoyed for its daredevil stunt work harkening back to his early days, with the skate suit sequence alone sure to stick with you for a long time to come.
- Jackie Chan set a Guinness World Record with “Chinese Zodiac” for Most Credits for One Movie, with a total of 15.
- The film’s big fight sequence cost 70 million yuan to film – equivalent to over $10 million.
- Jackie’s wife Lin Feng-jiao and son Jaycee have a brief cameo at the end of the film.