Jackie Chan is not through with action movies entirely – he’s currently making a Police Story sequel. But sprawling stunt-filled adventure films featuring international locations and casts? CZ12 (a.k.a. Chinese Zodiac) is supposed to be the end of those. It’s Chan’s last “large-scale action picture” and the latest in the Armour of God series. Though the only recognizable characteristics are Jackie Chan. His character’s job as a grave robber, and the physical trick where he flips pieces of gum into his mouth.
Looking closely, Chan’s “Asian Hawk” character from the Armour of God movies lacks any definition besides those things. There’s no mythology or history to the Asian Hawk story. The series is just a loose framework for Chan to travel the globe, scamper away from bad guys and steal crap. Hell, if they added that gum thing to Rob-B-Hood. It could have been an Armour of God sequel too.
Like the Armour movies, CZ12 (12 con giap) features an exceptionally thin story that uses historical details to prop up a fictional MacGuffin. Now called JC instead of “Jackie”, Chan’s character leads a team of grave robbers – consisting of Simon (Kwon Sang-Woo), Liao (Liao Fan) and Bonnie (Zhang Lanxin) – who acquire precious artifacts for rich and corrupt individuals. JC and his crew search for some bronze Chinese zodiac heads at the request of annoying middleman Jonathan (Jonathan Lee), who’s working for antiquities dealer and counterfeiter Mr. Morgan (Oliver Platt) and his son Michael (Vincent Sze).
There’s a big payoff in it for JC and crew. So they head to France to nab the initial heads plus do some research. Afterwards it’s off to an isolated island for even more zodiac head hunting. With antiquities expert Coco (Yao Xingtong) and French heiress Katherine (Laura Weissbecker) in tow. Currently, that’s Jackie Chan plus five extra characters, few of whom are tolerable.
The film does cross the line at one point
JC and crew have competition for the treasure: they’re pursued by comic underlings belonging to one of the zodiac head owners, plus the island is a hangout for a multi-national pirate group (led by Jackie Chan film veterans Steve Yoo and Ken Lo) who not only dress like Nickelodeon game show cast members, they act the part too.
CZ12 is loaded with crude acting and immature filmmaking, starting with the overcrowded cast – who generally mug or overact – and continuing with mild racism and sexism, annoying comedy, clichéd subplots and scads of cultural ignorance. This sort of filmmaking was more excusable in the eighties when globalization was only a pipe dream. But in today’s international film market it comes off as low class. CZ12’s backwards content can be partially excused because despite Chan’s international profile, the film is targeted at China, and it’s not like China’s film industry is the only one that releases culturally insensitive product.
The film does cross the line at one point. One ham-handed subplot involves Coco working as an activist for an NGO in favor of repatriating stolen antiquities to their rightful countries. When Coco first meets Katherine, she lashes into Katherine and her European ancestors for traveling to China during the Opium Wars to rape, murder and steal. And she uses those words almost verbatim. In response, Katherine offers a mea culpa, acknowledging past European Imperialism without pushing the ball back to China, which would be fair considering that China historically has its own human rights issues.
The film does posit a universal message
The film does posit a universal message. JC’s character arc involves deciding to heroically save Chinese and other cultural artifacts rather than steal them. But coupled with the criticism of westerners, this theme becomes off-putting. It would be smart if the filmmakers trimmed Coco’s China-centric speeches for foreign distribution. Despite their good intentions, the scenes are preachy and come off as overly nationalistic.
Moreover, removing the China bias cloud would help because CZ12 does offer a solid dose of Jackie Chan’s signature action-comedy. The first few action sequences are shorter and somewhat watered down for Chan. But midway through, the film hits its stride. The island-set sequence involves numerous moving parts – actors, props. The setting and even the story – and breathlessly amuses in a kid-friendly.
CZ12 is not a standout in Jackie Chan’s filmography
Rube Goldberg-like manner, with one element following the next like a series of falling dominoes. The main event is a vintage Jackie Chan (Thanh Long) fight sequence. Where he takes on multiple foes while running over, around and through an underground counterfeiting factory. Those sequences, plus a climactic skydiving set piece demonstrate the effort and thought that Chan puts into his action. Chan now employs some CGI and doubling, but his action design has long been in a class of its own. And here it’s as varied and creative as his body and resources will allow.
Overall, CZ12 is not a standout in Jackie Chan’s filmography. But it still offers moments of surprise that compensate for its weaker filmmaking. Besides the action sequences there are numerous cameos (including one from Chan’s real-life wife). And female fighter Zhang Lanxin shows strong potential in her quick one-on-one bout with martial artist Caitlin Dechelle. Bigger names like Kwon Sang Woo and Liao Fan offer support in thankless roles. But that’s what happens when you sign on for a Jackie Chan film: you take a backseat to Jackie. Even though he’s getting old and his best days are behind him.
Jackie Chan’s audience has dwindled over the years
Now pushing sixty, Jackie Chan is know more for running his mouth than making good movies. And some of his recent comments about Hong Kong and the US have made international headlines for their strong Chinese nationalism. Chan the man is no longer a genial figure, but regardless of his politics or personality. He still does things onscreen that no actor or filmmaker will even attempt.
Jackie Chan’s audience has dwindled over the years. Especially in the west where he’s arguably more associated with martial arts films than the action-comedies that made him a household name in Asia. His action is no longer edgy or hard-hitting. But it’s quite suitable to entertain families and children.
Besides, Chan’s major strength has never been as a powerful fighter. But as an action entertainer who makes unsophisticated but surprising and creative populist cinema. His movies are often marred by questionable storytelling decisions. And the Armour of God series especially is filled with cultural ignorance and poor stereotyping. But Chan’s brand of action trumps the fighting montage and CGI spectacle of scores of other films. Ultimately, dealing with CZ12 is like dealing with Jackie Chan himself. You have to tune out the crappy stuff to appreciate the unique entertainer that lies within. If you can do that, the film still yields rewards.