I like Jackie Chan. Actually, I really like Jackie Chan. My favourites aren’t the films many would pick though. I tend to lean more towards his traditional kung fu films than is stunt focused action flicks. That said, I have a huge amount of respect for how well shot, edited and choreographed his action films are. I grew up watching films like Police Story, Project A and Armour of God and they all feature the master at his best. So yeah, I prefer Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master but have a lot of love for just how well made the 80’s and 90’s Chan films were. In the mid to late 90s he moved over to making American films primarily. He then aged and slowed down, as was probably likely, assuming my theory of him being immortal isn’t true. Not too long ago he returned to China and made, what’s been touted, as his last action film. That is this film, Chinese Zodiac. A reboot, of sorts, of the Armour of God series. How did the film turn out? Click the link below for my words on this matter.
In Chinese Zodiac Jackie (Jackie Chan… if you couldn’t guess) is charged with the task of recovering a set of lost Chinese Zodiac animal heads so that they can be auctioned off for huge sums of money. This requires him to pretend to be a National Geographic reporter… and then some other places are visited for reasons and eventually they find the heads and have a few fights. Really… I don’t think I was paying attention. The story seemed to just kinda happen. Oliver Platt is in this you know. Jackie and his team recruit a few extra people along the way with conflicting motivations and then some shonky CGI happens and you realise that Jackie just can’t do the sort of action he used to do. At least not on the sort of consistent basis you were maybe used to.
I say I wasn’t paying attention. I was really. It’s just that, much like Who Am I? Chinese Zodiac’s plot is a flimsy excuse to string together action scenes one after the other. As the budget and expectations of Jackie Chan’s films rose so did the need to keep upping the ante with each subsequent film. For a while this was fine. Each film stayed grounded enough that the stunt show would feel dangerous and genuinely thrilling. The beautiful choreography would keep the rhythmic pace of the fights flowing unlike anyone else’s work. But then Chan started trying to match the scale of US films and locations went further away and became more extravagant. Before long it was the place the fight was taking place in, or the prop Chan was using that became more important than the reason for the fight. This meant actions scenes lost their danger as special effects and pre-built set based stunts would worm their way into the scenarios.
This is never more present than in Who Am I? But Chinese Zodiac comes very close to going that far. The film opens with Jackie’s team pulling off a theft that, for whatever reason, requires he rollerblades out of the mountain location. This isn’t a retread of the rollerskate chase from Winners and Sinners though. You see, Jackie, is wearing a rollerblade suit. Basically it’s body armour covered in wheels. Why this suit was needed to escape rather than using a car, a bike or any other form of transportation with wheels I don’t know. But it’s happening so we have to deal with it. Whilst the sequence is pretty cool it just doesn’t have the energy the previously mentioned Winners and Sinners scene had. The gimmick of the scene is something that requires a very specific set of decisions to come about and that’s just not the Chan way. He fights in a playground because it’s where he’s ambushed. He slides down a pole covered in lights because it’s his only route out. There’s no desperation here. Chan isn’t starting out in a position of weakness. He has his advantage and now he uses it.
The film continues like this until around 40 minutes from the end. There’s a maze sequence where Jackie is being chased with dogs as he attempts to use his para-glider to take off. The maze is a composite of CGI and matte paintings and at no point looks like a real location. One of the first shots of the maze shows three paths all painted into the scene like it was a shot from Labyrinth. When Jackie gets out of the maze he ends up on what must be the first near deserted road Jackie Chan has ever stepped foot on. There’s a brief stunt here when he narrowly misses a coach and kicks its roof windows shut but it entirely looks like he’s suspended from a crane. Remember the Police Story 2 sequence where he leapt over buses on a busy street? I don’t expect that from him now, of course, but don’t give us the sort of stunt that would look too tame for a Brett Ratner movie.
An extended jungle sequence drags. Yes, they end up in a jungle with a lost boat in the middle of an island like the missing sub in the first Uncharted game. This all culminates in a few actors sat on a plastic log as it trundles past some green screen and some of the film crew gently swat the cast in the face with a few big leaves. Also, there are CGI bees. This scene happens because Chan wanted an action scene in a jungle. There’s a moment earlier on where Chan and two female co-stars fall down a pit into a load of vines that feels a little Jackie Chan-esque, but that’s it. This whole first hour of the film really is dire. By the way, that log, filled with loads of gold and it floats on water. Until it doesn’t and the gold is lost.
There is a section of the film where we get a little of that Chan magic though. Around 40 minutes from the end Jackie and his team go to meet Oliver Platt’s Lawrence Morgan, the film’s sort of main villain when Platt was free to film for a couple of hours. He runs a huge antique forgery operation who intends to use the Zodiac animal heads to create copies from. Here we meet a rival of Jackie’s called Vulture (Alaa Safi). It’s clever cos Chan’s character is referred to as Hawk in the older Armour of God films. Anyway, during this sequence we have a series of fights throughout this base. At first Jackie and Vulture are having a test of skill where they must fight without leaving a series of couches. It’s a bet they make. This is pretty decent Jackie Chan action. A few minutes later a larger scale fight kicks off with Jackie taking on guards around the entire base. The highlight happens in a photography room where Chan utilises every prop he can to combat the guards whilst working in some quick moments of humour. This sequence is the closest we get to what Chan does best. A few moments are actually full blown classic Chan. And a few minutes later he’s sky diving and a dragon head is going to be chucked into a volcano.
That final skydiving sequence isn’t too bad really. It’s was shot using one of those giant fans to keep the actors in the air. There’s a lot of digital work going into the scene too but it doesn’t detract too much from the scene. The thing is that this whole scene is arbitrary. This could have all been finished in villain’s factory earlier. Just needed Jackie to escape with the Zodiac heads and we would have been done. If Vulture had been set up a a rival earlier we would have had the finale showdown we expected in a way that actually showed off both actor’s fighting skills in a unique way. Instead we have guys in skydiving suits with masks on wrestling over a dragon head. The factory gets destroyed too. We had out explosive moment.
As an action film Chinese Zodiac is a dire mess of confused plot points, poorly staged action scenes and a story that fails to engage on any level. As a Jackie Chan film we have all of the above plus that extra level of energy and sheen we expect, save for one brief series of fights. The final moments of the film rush through concluding a series of plot points that are barely touched on. A character’s wife, who we never met, has a baby. Jackie’s sister turns up who he had been trying to talk to on the phone occasionally. Vulture and his lady friend Katie (Caitlin Dechelle) are now friends with Jackie for respect reasons or something. A plot point no-one will care about as we only met the characters 20 minutes earlier. I’m sure the extended cut scene in China works a little better in these final moments but the cut down version is what we have to work with. The thing that really stings is that this film was directed by Chan. Everything wrong with it he should have known better. He genuinely does fully understand his style, how editing helps sell the fights and how to stage the events. He’s capable of better. Or at least was. Chinese Zodiac is just a limp facsimile of what Jackie Chan could do. A sad swan song to a stellar action film career.