Review: Chinese Zodiac

Yeah, Jackie Chan’s gone soft. Now he only risks maiming instead of certain death. The stunts he used to do had a 70-90% chance or higher of killing him. Now it’s only 50/50. Look, the reason I’ve always loved Jackie Chan was never that he did his own stunts. I loved that someone was doing the stunts for real but it wasn’t even that. I loved the creativity of his choreography, the humor and the spirit of Jackie Chan. Chinese Zodiac, reportedly one of Chan’s swan songs for action, shows that he’s still looking for ways to be creative, and finding lucrative opportunities.

I’ve been waiting for two years to see Chinese Zodiac. Apparently, it opened in a few AMC theaters this weekend so there it was. Though filmed in multiple languages, pretty much any non-English part is dubbed for this release, which at this point shouldn’t be any hindrance to appreciating a Jackie Chan movie. I suppose at some point I could have ordered a DVD from Asia but I never did so here we are.

I honestly didn’t really understand the plot of Chinese Zodiac so a recap is almost besides the point. It’s something to do with stealing 12 animal head statues representing the Chinese Zodiac. There are lots of other factions after the same artifacts, allies, double crosses, etc. As with most Jackie Chan movies, the good ones anyway, it really doesn’t matter. The point is Jackie Chan has to do some crazy stunts and fight some people until we get to see the outtakes. However, a subplot with Oliver Platt as the leader of a counterfeit ring goes to some pretty ludicrous places that only a Hong Kong movie could tolerate.

Critics complain that Chan doesn’t fight as much anymore, favoring more stunts and visual effects in his later films. When the film opens with Chan rolling down the road in a body suit of wheels (seriously, how could you not want to see that?), that might worry you but he’s still coming up with creative new action. He doesn’t want to do the same thing over and over, regardless of his age or safety concerns. Chan explores all the possible actions in a suit with wheels. There’s some CGI but it’s still Jackie Chan choreography. There are a lot of real stunts on the road too, by the way. It all works in the edit.

Also, remember this is Armor of God 3. In the Chinese versions he’s still playing Asian Hawk. They’ve changed it to JC in the dub, perhaps because another studio released American dubs of Armor of God and Operation Condor. Armor of God movies always open with a crazy escape. Remember the bubble in Condor? He had to top that, and a body suit with wheels sure tops that. To be sure JC is really Asian Hawk, he even does the signature gag, popping the white pills or gum (what are those white things anyway?) in his mouth.

There are still plenty of practical Jackie Chan set pieces. I mean, you get to watch Jackie Chan climb a library! That’s all still him. There’s an old jungle ship that is production designed entirely for a Jackie Chan fight. There’s a fight in a photo studio, so that’s one we’ve never seen before. A fight confined to a couch, watching Chan weave himself in and out of railings and through canvas rollers, these are the beautiful physical feats for which I watch Jackie Chan movies. We get several of those scenes, plus all the other crazy stuff. He even lets two awesome women fight it out in a scene he must have choreographed too, so they still have his voice.

Perhaps the best way to contextualize the latest Jackie Chan movie is to say that I love Rumble in the Bronx and Who Am I? I love Miracles and Police Story too but I’m all in for ‘90s era Jackie Chan. If you’re not into that, let me warn you that Chinese Zodiac is one of those, but after a spate of dramatic roles or brief cameos, I am so happy he’s still funny. Remember those two girls in Operation Condor, or the two girls in Mr. Nice Guy? Yeah, there’s two more girls like that in Chinese Zodiac.

There is some pretty nonsense technology in this movie. JC has some scanner gloves that transmit to a 3D printer so he can duplicate artifacts. JC and his gang perpetrate some pretty goofy heists, but if you want to see serious heists, why are you watching a Jackie Chan movie? The campy banter between JC and his partners is all so Jackie. It’s so much his voice, I just felt pure joy watching him play. He barks at some attack dogs. This is the broad tone of Hong Kong action comedy, let alone of Jackie Chan himself. I’m all for it.

The dubbing does worse for the supporting actors than Chan. The dubbers they got for the women sound so American, way too American for Yao Xingtong but even too American for the French Laura Weissbecker.

Sure, the CGI is terrible, but so is our Hollywood CGI. I would prefer Chan stick to practical set pieces but he’s only competing with us. We’ve flooded the market with CGI movies, so blame us. The final set piece is so batshit in concept, let alone in execution, that it’s something you should want to see, ridiculous or not. Need a reason for any of this? “Because it’s awesome” works for me.

I have often said that the only explanation any movie needs is “because it’s awesome.” If it’s awesome, it doesn’t need to make sense, be appropriate, realistic, etc. A movie’s job is to show us something awesome, be it action, fantasy, or intense drama. Jackie Chan is the king of “because it’s awesome.” He doesn’t need to climb libraries. He does it because it’s more awesome than just walking around. And that’s where Jackie Chan is at his best, filling a movie with awesome rather than trying to shoehorn awesome into a plot that makes sense.

If this is Jackie Chan’s last over the top action movie, I’ll be happy that he gave us some 30 amazing movies, plus all the interesting misfires. I already felt lucky when that number was 20 and he’s kept going. I’m actually more encouraged that Chinese Zodiac suggests a way Chan can keep doing what he does and live a long, comfortable life. The most amazing things are the intimate physical moments, the acrobatics in the library and the creative fights. Those are probably relatively easy for him. He’s had over 40 years of training and practice. The dangerous stuff, the big stunts, can all be handled with visual effects now, and Chan can use those tools for his own unique, creative ideas. If we’ve got to look at computer pictures, at least let Jackie Chan tell you how to animate computer pictures. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.


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