Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Chinese Zodiac

If you want a judgmental, fair, and objective review of "Chinese Zodiac", please stop reading right now.  I'm not the world's biggest Jackie Chan fanboy, but over the course of this year I've been getting more and more into him and martial arts movies in general after having my virginal eyes opened by the glory that was "The Raid: Redemption".  So in the last three or four months, I've seen something like ten Jackie Chan movies, a great deal of which actually weren't terribly good, but were still entertaining.  I compare them to a "Godzilla" movie, where roughly half of the proceedings are terribly dull plotline scenes, but then there's incredible action scenes that make the entire experience worthwhile.

Jackie Chan is an international superstar, easily one of the most famous actors alive today, with a massive fanbase in China and around the globe.  The only martial arts star more famous would be the legendary Bruce Lee, a sainted figure in modern martial arts.  What makes Jackie Chan such a star is his ability to stage huge intricate action scenes involving perilously dangerous stunts, all of which are performed himself.  In "Who Am I?", he ran down the side of a skyscraper, and that wasn't a special effect:  he ran down the side of a skyscraper.  But beyond his near-suicidal devotion to his craft, Jackie never makes himself an unstoppable killing machine who can take down an opponent in one punch.  He's usually outmatched by about six different opponents, and the way Jackie wins is by swinging around just about anything on hand:  umbrellas, ladders, wooden Dutch shoes.  Its nearly slapstick.  But its always fast, its always exciting, and its always inventive and a lot of fun.  The best part is that the battles are matched enough that it looks like Jackie just might overwhelmed by his opponents and fail.

If you want to watch legitimately good, fun, pulpy Jackie Chan B-movies, I'd recommend "Rumble in the Bronx", "Who Am I?", "Drunken Master", "Armour of God II:  Operation Condor", "Legend of the Drunken Master", and any of the "Police Story" movies.  If you want to watch a really bad Jackie Chan movie, just watch anything that a Western director put him in, especially the hideously bad "Rush Hour" movies, where poor Jackie looks embarrassed to have to stand next to screaming Chris Tucker* for three annoying and unwatchable films.  I'm embarrassed for him.

"Chinese Zodiac" is not one of Jackie Chan's best movies.  But it is billed as his last action film, so its something like the end of a great era.  Jackie is fifty-eight years old, he's been making movies since the early Seventies.  Obviously he can't still be hopping on red hot coals or sitting on table saws anymore.  And surprisingly, Jackie is able to pull off a couple of convincing exciting action scenes even at his late age.  But the rest of the movie is crap.  Only hardcore fans need apply for this one.

Technically "Chinese Zodiac" is the third film in Jackie Chan's Armour of God series, starring his own kung-fu version of Indiana Jones.  If you come into this movie not having seen the first two, you won't really miss out on any important plot details, but you might not appreciate a few call-back jokes from the earlier films.  And you really won't understand why this movie is so horribly goofy.  In the first two Armour of God movies, Jackie teams up ditzy chicks on an adventure around the world.  They're more comedies than action, and these chicks are such dumb stereotypes that it borders on being a high school anime.  You know the character type:  they fall through holes, they bring dresses on a Saharan adventure, they get attacked in the shower so that when Jackie runs in to save them, they'll slap him on the face for being a pervert.  You have to be in the right mindset to deal with this kind of thing, that being an extremely uncritical perspective of simply being there for the kung-fu.  Then Jackie will have a huge chase scene through the city in a James Bond gadget car.  The first "Armour of God" is more or less unwatchable since the entire movie lacks a single decent kung-fu scene until the very end, and even then, its hardly a showstopping fight.  "Armour of God II:  Operation Condor" has Jackie looking for Nazi Gold and fighting a legion of mercenaries in a wind tunnel, that movie is watchable.  But still, you need to understand how goofy these movies are in order to know why "Chinese Zodiac" wastes your time for an hour with endless unfunny comedy.

In "Chinese Zodiac", Jackie Chan is given the task of finding twelve legendary bronze heads that correspond to the Chinese Zodiac figures of Goat, Rat, Horse, Dragon, etc.  This is part of a bizarre scheme by a villainous non-Chinese Oliver Platt and his inexplicably very much Chinese son to corner the market in sacred historical relics by buying all the real ones and flooding the world with counterfeits... or something.  The plan doesn't make a terrible amount of sense to me, but they do offer Jackie Chan (known in this movie as "JC") and his team of thieves a million dollars each to steal all twelve, and they'll add another zero to pot if they find the Dragon Head.  This leads Jackie Chan on the usual globe-trotting adventure to find the heads.

Along the way, Jackie runs into a Chinese model in Paris named Coco, and a French noblewoman whose ancestor stole the Zodiac Heads back in the Opium Wars of the 19th century.  These make-up Jackie's ditzy female companions in this movie, and they spend most of their time arguing in multiple languages and discussing the color of panties.  This goes on for about an hour, and I recommend you skip all of it, and it is simply unwatchable.  "Chinese Zodiac" is something of an interesting achievement as it features one of the most multilingual casts in any movie I've ever seen.  You can have Mandarin, English, Japanese, and French all being spoken in the same scene, along with (on the online bootleg version that I watched) both Chinese and English subtitles.  However, its all used for very dull slapstick arguments, and some shockingly dull fight scenes on an island.  This French actress, by the way, cannot speak English to save her life, and you need the subtitles just to be able to understand what she's saying.  This global cast was a bold idea, but the result was lots of really bad acting from people who probably are a lot better in their native tongue.

I know this is more or less the most unprofessional recommendation ever, but if you want to watch "Chinese Zodiac", watch the first ten minutes, then skip to the final half hour.  Maybe along the way you might want to watch Jackie get chased by dogs through a hedge maze while trying to fly with a parachute.  In the opening scene, Jackie Chan's sexy female kung-fu co-star steals some keys with her legs, while Jackie has an exciting chase scene down a highway while wearing a Rollerblade Suit.  Jackie actually learned how to use a Rollerblade suit from the actual inventor of this new extreme sport, Jean-Yves Blondeau.  This sequence is fun.  In the last half hour, Jackie Chan and his leggy co-star invade Oliver Platt's secret lair.  Here Jackie has a fight with a rival Eurotrash hipster treasure hunter while never leaving a couch, then fights a bunch of henchmen in a photostudio, while Asian Legs fights some equally leggy Jewish-looking girl, and then the lair explodes.  Its definitely not the best action scenes that Jackie has ever done, but for a guy ten years older than my Dad, he really can still go and can do real kung-fu.  However, he doesn't have nearly the stamina he had just a decade ago, because these scenes are pretty much it for the martial arts.

All this leads to the final sequence of the movie.  Oliver Platt's evil scheme of selling national treasures eventually leads to a massive international backlash led by some college students that Jackie has teamed up with.  Its so bad that no buyer anywhere will purchase the Dragon Head.  Oliver Platt, however, had the perfect solution to this.  He sends up the Eurotrash Dude onto a plane and threatens that if nobody buys the Head, he'll THROW IT INTO AN ACTIVE VOLCANO.  Okay, "Chinese Zodiac", you got me, that's both hilarious and awesome.  So Jackie has to save the Dragon Head by taking part in a massive skydiving fight scene (which tragically was not a real effect like Jackie is known for), and finally saving the Head by crashing into the volcano using the balloon suit from "Armour of God 1".

And well, if Jackie Chan engaging in a massive ten million dollar skydiving battle is not a great send-off to one of the best action careers of all time, then what is?  "Chinese Zodiac" may not be the best movie, it even be unwatchably bland and stupid for a long period of its running time, but at least the action is still authentic effects and Jackie Chan knows when to quit.  Its certainly a more respectable send-off to a great career than "The Expendables" movies**.  I'm just glad I got a chance to review Jackie Chan's swan song, even if I cannot say with a straight face that it was at all a good movie.

* We spent about ten minutes comparing Chris Tucker to a Cthulu-style monster in the "Final Fantasy VI" Let's Play.  Yeah, he is that bad.

** There are rumors that Jackie Chan is going to be in "The Expendables 3".  Here I was hoping I could just skip that, but now I might just have to see that certainly-awful movie.


  1. Since you mentioned Bruce Lee in this review, I want to know if you've watched any of his movies.

    1. I've - of course - seen "Enter the Dragon", which is just a great movie. However, Bruce Lee felt like something of an afterthought since Williams was just so much more charismatic. I also saw "The Big Boss" which was pretty dark but also really slow. Finally the last one I saw was "Game of Death", which is actually a load of crap. Originally it was going to be just Bruce Lee kicking ass endlessly, but he died before it was completed, so some studio stole the footage and made a terribly offensive plotline, where Bruce Lee faked his own real-life death and the rest of the movie is played by another actor. Its a Bruceploitation movie, completely worthless aside from what little original footage they left in.

  2. Wanna know something cool? At the Australian National University, there's a building called the Jackie Chan Science Centre.