Jackie Chan, perhaps best known these days for his outspoken Chinese nationalism rather the stunt-filled action films in which he made his name, returns with “CZ12” (“Chinese Zodiac”), his latest outing as writer, director, action choreographer and star. The highly anticipated film has been cause for great excitement for fans, being a sequel of sorts to his much-loved “Armour of God” series, promising a big budget, globe-spanning treasure hunt of epic proportions. Helping Chan to try and recapture his former glories is a suitably international cast that includes Liao Fan (“Let the Bullets Fly”), Yao Xingtong (“Amor”), and Zhang Lanxin from China, Kwon Sang Woo (“Into the Fire”) from Korea, the European Laura Weissbecker (“Arena”), and Hollywood character actor Oliver Platt (“Lake Placid”), with various big name stars such as Shu Qi and Daniel Wu making cameo appearances.
The film is only somewhat vaguely connected to its predecessors, Chan now known as JC, a treasure hunter/grave robber who travels the world with his intrepid gang (Kwon Sang-Woo, Liao Fan and Zhang Lanxin), tracking down relics for ruthless megalomaniac antiques villain Morgan (Oliver Platt). When JC is given his toughest challenge yet, acquiring the 12 Chinese Zodiac bronze heads looted from the Summer Palace in 1860, he falsely obtains the help of relics activist Coco (Yao Xingtong), telling her that he plans to return them to China. With French heiress Katherine (Laura Weissbecker) tagging along to try and uncover the fate of her grandfather and rivals hot on his trail, he follows the clues to a remote tropical island, while slowly learning the true cultural value of the bronzes.
There’s considerable weight of expectation heavy on the shoulders of “CZ12”, and given Jackie Chan’s advancing age and the fact that it’s now been some time since he last entertained fans with his trademark brand of crazy stunts and kung-fu, it’s understandable that many would approach it with some trepidation, not least due to some less than positive advance reviews. Pleasingly, the film turns out to be much better than expected, and while by no means even close to matching Chan in his creative prime, it offers up a couple of hours of enjoyably daft, family friendly action and adventure.
Certainly, it delivers in terms of spectacle and chaos, Chan doing the best job he has in years of throwing together wild and over the top set pieces, including a bizarre though thrilling roller suit chase down a winding mountain road, a “Tomb Raider” sequence involving chains and pirates, and an amazing sky-diving into a volcano finale. With the star now 58, the stunts aren’t quite so daring and he unsurprisingly falls back at times on the use of CGI, though his imagination and craftsmanship are as vivid as ever, and the film is fun and fast-moving throughout, making great use of what was obviously a very generous budget, whipping through a series of exotic locales and impressive sets.
On the downside, the film does inevitably get bogged down in rhetoric, Chan inserting far too many pro-China speeches about the Opium War and the looting of antiques – noble though these sentiments might be, the clumsy script simply throws them in, characters frequently launching into carefully worded rants that never sound like believable dialogue. While he does attempt to bring things round to a more universal message, it’s all a bit too heavy handed for Chan to be able to have his cake and eat it, not least due to some moments of mild racism that will likely jar with Western viewers.
Still, this is made somewhat more palatable by the fact that the actor has retained his affable everyman onscreen charisma, and his basic likeability shines through, making such lapses more forgivable, or at least easier to ignore. The film is very much the Chan show, with the supporting cast barely getting a look-in, though this too is fine, as he certainly seems to still enjoy playing such roles, his enthusiasm and self-depreciating demeanour always apparent. With plenty of ingenious slapstick and pratfalls throughout, he manages to work in plenty of laughs, most of which hit the mark, and this goes some way to winning the film back some of the points it loses through over-earnest patriotism.
Though there’s no denying that “CZ12” isn’t a patch on the rest of the “Armour of God” series, or indeed any of the films from Jackie Chan’s heyday, it’s definitely better than feared. For those with appropriately adjusted expectations the film and indeed Chan himself do still have plenty to offer, and though it’s unlikely that he’ll ever experience a true return to form, the stunts and spectacle on show here are entertaining enough and several notches above most other genre films coming from China at the moment.
Jackie Chan (director) / Frankie Chan, Jackie Chan, Edward Tang, Stanley Tong (screenplay)
CAST: Jackie Chan … Asian Hawk
Qi Shu … David’s Wife
Oliver Platt … Lawrence Morgan
Daniel Wu … Hospital Doctor
Caitlin Dechelle … Katie
Laura Weissbecker … Catherine de Sichel
Emilie Guillot … French Reporter
Xingtong Yao … Coco