CZ12 (aka CHINESE ZODIAC) (2012) review

chinese-zodiac

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. **

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