ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA IV (1993) short review

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In 1993, Wu Shu champion Vincent Zhao had the uneasy task of replacing Jet Li as the iconic Wong Fei Hung in a fourth installment of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China series, following a highly successful trilogy of films. Once Upon A Time In China IV (henceforth Ouatic IV) is not actually directed by Tsui Hark, but by Yuen Bun, who had choreographed the action in the third film. The film is on a smaller scale, and its story, while still musing on themes of national pride and foreign influence, is both more anecdotal and a rehash of the second film’s plot (with the ‘Red Lantern’ sect replacing the ‘White Lotus’ sect). Zhao is an adequate replacement : he’s not as charismatic as Jet Li, but his martial arts ability and grace doesn’t suffer by comparison. The problem is that the film features drawn-out scenes of lion-dancing, a venerable tradition that must be stunning in real life, but tends to bore this writer on screen, and despite the stunning design of some of those parade ornaments, is a weak substitute for actual fight scenes, which are too scarce here. Elsewhere, Jean Wang provides a fine replacement for Rosamund Kwan’s absent Aunt Yee, and Xiong Xin Xin is close to stealing the film away from Zhao with his humorous performance (complemented of course by his awe-inspiring kicks). But like the former film, Ouatic IV lacks a proper villain, with Chin Kar-Lok and Billy Chow forming a striking but grossly underused duo of baddies. An entertaining but forgettable installment. 1/2

THE AVENGING EAGLE (1978) review

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While he didn’t achieve the same status as fellow directors Chang Cheh, Yuan Chu or Liu Chia-Liang within the Shaw Brothers roster of talent, Sun Chung has nevertheless given the legendary Hong Kong film studio some of its most original and/or striking classics. From his trailblazing use of steadycam to film martial arts fights in The Kung Fu Instructor, to the unhinged weirdness of Human Lanterns, Sun left an unmistakable though unsung mark in the Shaw catalogue. The Avenging Eagle might just be his best achievement. It follows Chi Min-Sing (Ti Lung), who is part of a brotherhood of assassins known as the Eagles, all raised by and obeying to the cruel Yue Xi-Hong (Ku Feng), who sends them on missions to murder his enemies. When Chi is gravely wounded in one of these missions, he is taken in by a generous man, whose daughter he falls in love with. She urges him to not kill anymore and become a good man, but the pressure from Yue and the Eagles proves too strong : soon Chi is back in the murdering business, and he can’t stop the man who saved him and the woman he loves from being assassinated by his ‘brothers’. But after having committed the unthinkable by murdering a pregnant woman on his master’s order, Chi finally decides to run away from the Eagles and look for the murdered woman’s husband to atone for his crime. During his escape he meets a nameless man (Alexander Fu-Sheng), who decides to help him, seemingly out of the kindness of his heart. But it is soon discovered he has hidden motives, and unsuspected fighting abilities…

The Avenging Eagle tells a fairly simple story of betrayal, revenge and the awakening to Good, but tells it in a compact, hard-hitting way that instantly raises the film above many Shaw Brothers films that get bogged down in too many twists and turns. The film starts in the middle of the narrative, and lets the audience catch up on the story through a series of brisk flashbacks that peel off the plot’s layers in an engaging way. This is a streamlined, 86-minute film where every minute counts. The fights are abundant and masterfully edited, but never grow repetitive, thanks to the use of inventive weaponry like the forearm blades wielded by Fu Sheng or the steel claws Ku Feng uses in the stunning final fight. Sun Chung didn’t get the Shaw Brothers’ biggest budgets, but he always made the most of what he got, and The Avenging Eagle looks stunning with its perfectly-framed forest settings and the striking set design of the Eagles’ headquarters.

But one of the film’s key strengths is the cast. Alexander Fu Sheng had an uncanny ability to go from supremely goofy to lean and deadly, and that ability is put to great use here. When we first meet him it looks like he’s going to be Ti Lung’s goofy sidekick ; then we see flashes of his lethal fighting style, and cracks start to appear in his amiable exterior. The gradual reveal of his true identity and motivations is perfectly carried out by the late star. Ku Feng is a memorable villain and never lets his awesome facial hair out-act him ; no small feat. But the film belongs to Ti Lung. Chi as a character is all shades of grey ; he’s a deadly assassin who’s only ever known the cold act of killing, and when his eyes are opened and he experiences the warmth of love, his awakening is a gradual one, not some kind of overnight change for good. Even after swearing to never kill again, he murders a pregnant woman out of sheepish obedience to his master ; even after choosing to do good, glints of his old self show up : when Fu Sheng rescues him in the desert in the beginning of the film, he reciprocates by stealing his horse and water. When born and raised a murdering outlaw, you don’t just turn it off like that. All this is superbly conveyed by Ti Lung in what is one of the best performances in his long and legendary career, not to mention his fighting performance with the three-section staff he wields in the film is quite impressive. Ti’s eventual team-up with Fu Sheng is one of the most charismatic duos in the Shaw Brothers catalogue. The cast for the rest of the Eagles is populated with such distinguished martial arts supporting players as Wang Lung Mei, Dick Wei, Eddy Ko Hung and Yuen Bun, which means every fight is a delight. A remake of this film is in the plans : it has its work cut out for itself to match the star wattage, hard-hitting storytelling and visual mastery The Avenging Eagle displays.

Long Story Short : One of the true gems of the Shaw Brothers catalogue, The Avenging Eagle is a lean, mean story of vengeance and redemption, carried by a superb cast and powered by Sun Chung’s masterful direction. A dark and punchy treat. 

THE GREAT MAGICIAN (2011) short review

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In the Warlord era after the Chinese Revolution, a revolutionary group aims to kill a powerful warlord (Lau Ching Wan) to take a step towards reinstating the republic. Said warlord has imprisoned a woman (Zhou Xun) whom he wants to make his new wife, but can’t bring himself to force into mariage. The arrival of a skilled magician (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) with ties to the revolutionary group and a shared past with the imprisoned woman, marks the start of a game of deceit and illusions. Visually, this is an absolutely stunning movie, gorgeously lit, awash in lush production design, and elegantly directed by Derek Yee in a diversion from his more serious contemporary fare. The magician’s scenic tricks are wonderfully executed with seamless CGI and are a joy to behold. Leung, Lau and Zhou are firmly in their comfort zone and their interaction is one of the film’s pleasures, while fun cameos by Tsui Hark and Daniel Wu (among others) spice up the proceedings. Too bad then that the film is so narratively muddled and rhythmically challenged ; the plot proves too meandering for such a playful concoction, which results in an overlong runtime. Still, an enjoyable piece of classy fluff. 

TOM YUM GOONG 2 (aka THE PROTECTOR 2) (2013) review

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In 2005 Tom Yum Goong seemed to cement Thaï action star Tony Jaa’s status as the new martial arts sensation, following his impressive calling card, 2003′s Ong Bak. Though Jaa was light on charisma, and the film itself was little more than a stunt demo reel, with a simplistic story and grainy, amateurish aesthetic, there was no denying the utter death-defying bravado of its fights and stunts, executed with a mix of lithe power and startling flexibility by its star. Tom Yum Goong didn’t shine more plotwise, but was a more polished film, worthy of the big screen : its director and choreographer, Prachah Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai, Jaa’s pygmalions, had scaled back the life-threatening stunts but made the fights more momentous by featuring diverse and impressive guest-fighters like Capoeira-dynamo Lateef Crowder, Wushu-wonder John Foo, towering musclehead Nathan Jones and Vietnam’s finest, Johnny Tri Nguyen. Technically and artistically the fights were also things of beauty, with a dizzying 4-minute tracking-shot fight, Jaa breaking the bones of dozens of men in black, or taking on henchmen twice his size. Then came Tony Jaa’s much publicized breakdown on the set of Ong Bak 2, which he had wanted to direct, the eventual underperformance of that film, the complete failure of its second part, Ong Bak 3, and the star’s retreat as a Buddhist monk. Five years later, Tom Yum Goong 2 marks his comeback to films, his reunion with Pinkaew, and his first pairing with the petite martial arts wonder that more or less replaced him during his exile, Jeeja Yanin. And it’s hard not to be sorely disappointed.

The plot is, duh, simple. Kham’s (Tony Jaa) elephant has been stolen, again, so within ten minutes he is back to breaking into buildings or houses, yelling “Chang gu yoo nai !?!” (“Where’s my elephant ?”), and breaking henchmen-bones. His elephant has actually been stolen by Mr. LC (RZA), a shady, err, man who aims to replace its tusks with bombs and offer it as an explosive diplomatic gift to dignitaries of the fictional state of Katana to facilitate a coup-d’etat. Mr. LC has a range of skilled fighters under his command, including the lethal n°2 (Marrese Crump) and the beautiful n°20 (Rhatha “Yayaying” Phongam) ; he has plans to frame Kham, who can only count on his friend Mark (Petchtai “Mum Jokmok” Wongkamlao) and a girl (Jeeja Yanin) whose uncle and twin sister were murdered by n°2.

As we said, within ten minutes a steady stream of fights has been initiated, and the film rarely pauses for more than five minutes before getting back to limb-breaking. The unfortunate bouts of lame comedy from the previous film are gone (comic relief Wongkamlao is enjoyably dialed-down and endearing). Indeed, this is not a boring film at all, and one of the few things it manages to achieve properly is maintain a healthy rythm that never lulls but never goes into overkill either. A side-effect is that, apart from an early set-piece and the grand finale, the fights often feel bitty, always stopping when they’re starting to get interesting : for instance Jaa and Yanin fight twice, but never for longer than a minute, and an action scene where Jaa disposes of security guards in an official building is over much too early. And the more protracted action scenes, while featuring some impressive passages, fail on almost every level. Visually, they’re not a pretty sight, marred by eye-gouging CGI (which we guess was for the sake of the film’s 3D release), a green-screen aesthetic that seems to indicate much of the film was shot on soundstages, with backgrounds digitally added later on, which makes for a distractingly ugly result. One fight set in a room on fire is an unbelievable hack-job, with slapdash CGI fire slathered on the walls.

The awe-inspiring practicality of Jaa’s previous films is gone, with the aforementioned CGI and green screen, but also often apparent wirework ; now, we know Jaa is now approaching his forties, and the breackneck, daring stunts of ten years ago are understandably getting out of his reach, but trickery in film fights is all in the execution, and there’s almost something amateurish in the glaring obviousness of some of the CGI and wirework. Actually, the film often looks like a patch-up job, with its trouble-fraught, unusually protacted production probably accounting for the numerous editing glitches, lapses in narrative logic (even inside the fights), and the fact Jaa’s haircut often changes in the course of a set-piece, becoming shorter then longer again, and so forth. In the early major set-piece where Jaa is hunted by countless bikers on the roofs of Bangkok, shots alternate between location shoot and green-screen insert, sadly detracting from some of the impressive stuntwork and choreography to be found there.

More damningly, the film doesn’t seem to know what its audience wants. Why include Jeeja Yanin, if her role basically amounts to being a punching bag for everyone she fights ? Her character has no real interaction with Jaa’s and is made to pop up randomly in various scenes, attacking Jaa or Crump and generally getting disposed of with a few blows. Why spend so much time on RZA talking or fighting, when the guy is not much of an actor and not much of a fighter either ? Why render Tony Jaa so passive in the last tier of the finale ? He’s basically just hanging to his elephant’s tusks while RZA and Crump pummel him. Still, it’s not all bad. As previously mentioned the film is never boring, and Jaa’s mano-a-mano’s with Marrese Crump are actually quite impressive, with the latter exhibiting some stunning speed and strength, making for a worthy opponent. Jaa himself is still a joy to behold in action, even if seemingly a bit slower and less flexible (a natural evolution) ; he however hasn’t gained much in the way of charisma. But this film is not up to his Pinkaew’s or Yanin’s potential and really, it’s a wonder a 3-year shoot might lead to such a sloppy result.

Long Story Short : Tom Yum Goong 2 is an entertaining but sorely disappointing comeback for Tony Jaa, mired in distractingly ugly CGI and underuse of its talent. 

KICKBOXER (1993) short review

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Directed by Wu Ma and sometimes billed as Once Upon A Time In China 6, which it is definitely not, Kickboxer instead focuses on a disciple of Wong Fei Hung (who is absent from the whole film), Yuen Biao’s Lau Zhai, who after being wrongly accused of smuggling opium into China, has to infiltrate a Opium gang led by Chairman Wah (Yuen Wah), with the help of his friend Bucktooth (Wu Ma) and constable Panther (Yen Shi Kwan). Produced not only to cash in on the success of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China series, but also to provide Yuen Biao with a starring role worthy of his talents following his sidelining in the first film of Tsui Hark’s series, Kickboxer was unfortunately made with much less money, resulting in a far cheaper look. More disappointingly, despite its ambition to better showcase Yuen Biao, the film relies too much on comedy and not enough on fights. It has crazy moments, like what can only be described as a kung fu chess game between Yuen and Yen Shi Kwan, but overall has the feel of a TV knockoff. Things do get a bit more memorable in final fight between Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah (always an exciting match-up), but in the end, Kickboxer isn’t that much less a waste of Yuen’s massive talents than Once Upon A Time In China was. 

PEACE HOTEL (1995) review

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Chow Yun Fat’s last film in the pre-Handover Hong Kong film industry before he went on to try his luck in Hollywood, Peace Hotel was directed by regular Johnnie To collaborator Wai Ka Fai, produced by John Woo, and has the feel of a swan song. Indeed Chow Yun Fat’s next Hong Kong Cantonese-speaking film would come almost 20 years later. So it is quite suitable that his character in the film is known only as “the Killer”, echoing arguably the apex of his Hong Kong career and his legendary collaboration with John Woo. The Killer, as a gorgeous black-and-white prologue tells us, once wiped out an entire gang of horse thieves responsible for the death of his wife (Wu Chien Lien). His killing spree led him to an abandoned hotel, where after an experiencing an epiphany he spared the life of the last gang member. 10 years later, the hotel is not abandoned anymore : it has become a safe haven for fugitives and outlaws, run by the Killer himself. In comes Siu Man (Cecilia Yip) a woman who pretends to be the Killer’s long lost wife in order to stay there for free. She is quickly exposed as a fraud, and to make things worse she’s wanted by a vicious gang for killing one of their leaders. When said gang shows up in front of the Peace Hotel, the Killer must choose between upholding his vow to protect anyone seeking shelter in the hotel, at the cost of an all-out war, or delivering Siu Man to the gang, with his growing love for her complicating things further.

This is a film about and for the the glory of Chow Yun Fat. He towers over the film, oozing charisma, filling up the screen, alternatively and effortlessly charming, stoïc, brutal or tragic, equally believable as hard-hearted Killer, grief-stricken husband, or warm father figure. This is not as completely sympathetic a character as he was known for playing : his treatment of Cecilia Yip’s character is less than chivalrous (let’s just say it involves a lot of slapping), and his initial killing spree is more senseless slaughter than heroic bloodshed. But Chow anchors the film splendidly, as he alwasy does, and cuts a striking figure of a tragic, doomed hero. The stunning Cecilia Yip holds her own next to him with a fiery performance and their chemistry powers the film along. Not to take anything away from Wai Ka Fai’s stunning direction, a wonderful neo-western aesthetic with dashes of Wu Xia Pan (Chow fights with a sword rather than the rifle he sports on the film’s poster), balanced with political references that situate the film firmly in early-20th century China and awash in a spirited and hummable score by the delightfully named Healthy Poon. The influence of John Woo is to be felt in touches of varying subtlety, from the doves that signal the Killer’s (itself a telling character name) epiphany, to an apocalyptic final shootout where he faces the gang on his own with a machinegun. But this is Wai Ka Fai’s film and while it doesn’t have much depth, it’s a stunning one.

Long Story Short : A stunning, heartfelt neo-western that makes up in charisma what it lacks in depth. 

PLAYBOY COPS (2008) short review

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Two cops, one from the mainland (Chen Kun), one from Hong Kong (Shawn Yue) ; one is dating the other’s ex-girlfriend (Linda Chung), and they’re both on the trail of a scorpion-tattooed killer. The films starts as an insufferable prance-off between Chen and Yue, the former all douchey smiles and false modesty, the latter proud and sullen but gooey-hearted. At this point their “investigation” doesn’t matter much, as they mostly trade weak barbs, vie for the girl’s affections and fight Xiong Xin Xin in a fun cameo. Then the killer is outed and it is revealed Chen Kun has a bullet lodged in his head that could kill him anytime : these plot turns lead to a stark tonal shift as the film goes from breezy buddy movie to brutal thriller. That shift makes it a bit more interesting, as does a Danny Lee cameo that serves to flesh out Yue’s character a bit. In the end, as directed with glitzy, superficial flair by Jingle Ma, Playboy Cops is a serviceable time-waster, which depending on the circumstances of your watching it can either be a good or a bad thing. 

FLAMING BROTHERS (1987) review

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Surfing on the Heroic Bloodshed wave initiated mostly by John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films, starring one of the genre’s biggest stars in the person of Chow Yun Fat, written by Hong Kong cinema luminaries Wong Kar Wai and Jeff Lau, Joe Cheung’s Flaming Brothers has a pedigree that’s hard to ignore. Chow Yun Fat and Alan Tang star as brothers (in the sense that they’re orphans who grew up in poverty looking after each other) who’ve made it big in the Triads. But while Tang looks to solidify his position and broaden the scope of his operations, Chow simply wants out, having rekindled a childhood love (Pat Ha), a catholic nurse who is averse to violence and the Triad lifestyle. When Tang’s feud with a mob boss (Patrick Tse) escalates irreparably, Chow must choose between love and brotherhood.

Given the involvement of Wong Kar Wai, one could expect Flaming Brothers to belong to the more arty section of Heroic Bloodshed movies, like for instance Patrick Tam’s superb My Heart is That Eternal Rose. But the truth is it’s a fairly straightforward iteration ; there’s type-casting (Chow Yun Fat as the more light-hearted of the brothers, Patrick Tse as a slimy Triad boss, Norman Chu as a complete scumbag…), there’s drawn-out nightclub scenes, there’s ample collateral damage (a scene where the brothers’ henchman sees his family wiped out is rather hard to watch), and of course there’s a final scene of massacre to earn that ‘Bloodshed’ label, here a shootout in a stable that seems to want to turn the ‘endless ammunition’ tenet of the genre by featuring a staggering amount of moments where the characters realize their gun is empty. It’s a fine finale, and though the final heroic sacrifice doesn’t make a lot of sense, it’s suitably over-the-top.

Chow Yun Fat actually plays a character that is more thoughful and less rambunctious than in his other Heroic Bloodshed films of the time and his soft-spoken performance completely overshadows Alan Tang’s bland portrayal of the older brother. As a result the all-important chemistry between the brothers is lacking, which undermines the film’s ambition in tragedy. In a role that seems cut for someone of Adam Cheng or Ti Lung’s stature, Tang leaves no mark and even his romantic subplot with the strikingly plain Jenny Tseng is beffudling : they meet when a Thaï mob boss ‘gives’ her to him as a present : he orders two hookers and makes her watch… Classy. Then when they become romantically involved (however did that happen) and he’s giving her a tour of his house, he gratuitously locks her up in a closet… So romantically whimsical. Chow Yun Fat on the other hand gets a touching love story with a childhood flame affectingly played by the great Pat Ha. Her character is a bit on the dry side however, her only trait being her dedication to charity. But after all the very nature of romantic subplots in such films is to underline by their blandness the much stronger bond that exists between the brothers/friends. ‘Homoerotic’ is the wrong word, as there is no trace of eroticism in their relation ship and the way it is shown. ‘Homoplatonic’ sounds weird but fits better.

Long Story Short : Though enjoyable, Flaming Brothers is marred by a lack of chemistry between its leads and is mostly by-the-numbers Heroic Bloodshed. Chow Yun Fat and a few unusual touches make it worthwhile nevertheless. 

SHANGHAI SHANGHAI (1990) short review

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In the 1930′s, Small Tiger (Yuen Biao) comes to Shanghai hoping to make it big. There he finds himself torn between his brother Big Tiger (George Lam), who’s an army colonel, and a charismatic mob boss (Sammo Hung Kam Bo), for whom he starts working. But a case of stolen funds forces him to choose sides and butt heads with a high-ranking revolutionary (Anita Mui), who’s also in love with his brother. With its 80 minutes running time, and sometimes subpar production values (mostly in scenes that involve flight in machines designed by Big Tiger), Shanghai Shanghai often feels more like an extended TV series pilot, but the sheer charisma and class of its cast, whether it be a flawless Yuen Biao who proves again what a fine leading man he can be, the classy Anita Mui singing, dancing and fighting the film away, or a towering Sammo Hung Kam Bo in a mob boss role that foreshadows his impressive S.P.L. character fifteen years later. Ultimately it’s a fun little adventure film, and one that speaks to any martial arts fan’s heart by ending with a Sammo Hung/Yuen Biao fight. 

CZ12 (aka CHINESE ZODIAC) (2012) review

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Meant to be the third installment in Jackie Chan’s ‘Asian Hawk’ series (following 1986′ Armour of God and 1991′s Operation Condor), touted for an international day-and-date release (which didn’t happen), and heralded as Jackie Chan’s final big action movie (which he later clarified meant “his last movie to feature him performing dangerous stunts”), CZ12 manages to disappoint on all three of these fronts. It is neither a franchise finale, nor an international blockbuster, nor even a worthy bookend to Chan’s “death-defying” career phase. Jackie Chan plays JC, a treasure hunter who leads his team of tech experts (plus a Chinese student and a French heiress) on a search for 12 Zodiac bronze heads, artifacts that were stolen from China in the 19th century looting of the Old Summer Palace by foreigners.

As a producer, writer, director and star (not to mention a host of other credits that earned him a Guinness Book record for most credits on a single film), Jackie Chan pulled all the stops to make CZ12 a resounding finale to his daredevil years. Filmed in China, Australia, France, Vanuatu, Taiwan and Latvia, featuring a cast that is international (Oliver Platt from the United States, Laura Weissbecker from France, Kwon Sang Woo from South Korea, Vincent Sze from Hong Kong, to name a few), cameo-rich (Shu Qi, Daniel Wu, Chan’s wife Joan Lin), and full of martial arts guest stars (martial arts world champions Caitlin Dechelle, Alaa Safi and Zhang Lanxin), and costing a hefty 30m$ (a big deal in China), it’s a major enterprise. And taken in light of these key assets we’ve just enumerated, a major failure.

The international dimension of the film is mangled. Sure the on-location shooting is uniformally impressive (Paris actually looks like Paris, for instance), but most non-Asian characters are either fat and corrupt (Oliver Platt’s conterfeiting baron Lawrence Morgan), shrieky and vapid (Laura Weissbecker’s heiress De Sichel), or prancing puppets (Alla Safi and Caitlin Dechelle’s rival team of ‘unethical’ treasure hunters). The film’s preachy slant, by which not giving back stolen artifacts to a country’s patrimony is gravely unjust, is based on legitimate claims, but Jackie Chan does it a disservice by making the insufferably whiny and self-righteous Chinese student Coco (played by Yao Xingtong with whiny self-righteousness) its mouthpiece. That may go some way towards explaining the film’s triumph in China (it is the all-time third biggest success there), and relative indifference outside of Asia, where it has only scarcely gotten a big screen release. Taking such an biasedly (though legitimately) Asian angle is not a savvy decision if your aim is international success.

But where CZ12 really disappoints is in the action. This is not what an stunt swansong from arguably the biggest action star of the 20th century should look like. Chan’s opening stunt is fun but not exactly thrilling past the relative novelty of wearing a full-body rollerblade suit. Likewise, the film’s finale where JC skydives over a volcano, is entertaining and superbly shot, but is so obviously (and understandably) a green-screen concoction that it’s difficult to be impressed. In between, there’s a frankly hideous jungle escape that is both derivative (a gang of colourful pirates with a Jack Sparrow lookalike) and visually muddled. Only a protracted fight in an undergound counterfeiting warehouse recaptures the old Jackie Chan magic, with a terrific couch-bound mano-a-mano, an great match-up between Caitlin Dechelle and Zhang Lanxin, and a wonderfully inventive fight in a photo studio, a short highlight for an overlong film. Jackie Chan remains as impossibly likeable as ever, and the film has minor surprises, among which the striking Zhang Lanxin, a model and Taekwondo champion who has the grace and presence to get better roles. But while it’s a passably entertaining ride, the film’s positioning as a milestone and the mostly excellent Chinese career Chan has been enjoying lately (barring the heavy-handed 1911), make it a jarring disappointment.

Long Story Short : Not a worthy bookend to Chan’s “death-defying” career phase, CZ12 is passably entertaining but preachy and too skimpy on the old Jackie Chan magic it is supposed to celebrate.