When the first promo/trailer hit for CZ12 (aka Chinese Zodiac), I bought into the hype and the possibility of the film. When news landed that CZ12 was going to be Jackie Chan’s last big action movie, I was eager to see how he’d cap his career. If this was the last hurrah for Chan’s crazy action films, how would it all end?
Best case scenario, I felt CZ12 would serve as a kind of crescendo, a mix of “Jackie Chan’s greatest hits” and “Jackie Chan’s still go it.” Like the little phrases of offense in one of his fights, I hoped the film would be a flourish of creativity followed by a brief moment of heroic posing/reflection.
I really shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.
CZ12 (Chinese Zodiac | 12 Chinese Zodiac Heads | 十二生肖)
Director: Jackie Chan
Country: Hong Kong/China
Release Date: December 20, 2012 (Asia); October 18th, 2013 (US)
If CZ12 is Jackie Chan’s last big action movie, maybe it’s for the best, and it pains me to write that since I’ve been a Jackie Chan fan for so long. CZ12 is not necessarily a bad movie, and it’s definitely not Chan’s worst film of the 21st century (that would be the almost unwatchable The Spy Next Door). The biggest issue with CZ12 is how unremarkable it is despite some moments of brilliance. It’s also problematic that CZ12 is semi-associated with Armor of God and Armor of God II: Operation Condor, two of Chan’s landmark classics. By comparison, it falls far short. Maybe this is less a case of Chan showing his age and more Chan showing his lack of good judgment.
At the heart of CZ12 is a story of retrieving some bronze animal heads that were looted by European soldiers during the mid-19th century. JC is on the case, and he’s doing it all for the money rather than a sense of national pride/reverence of Chinese history. You can probably guess how that will flip as the story continues.
There’s slapstick, there’s globetrotting, and boy is there ever some cheesiness involved. Chan’s movies have always had a cheesy streak to them which is endearing (see Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights for the best and most enjoyable examples of cheesiness in latter-day Chan’s career), but here the cheese seems especially dialed up. In some ways it’s Chan paying homage to the broadness of Cantonese comedy, but it also seems just too quaint and not all that appealing anymore. Maybe it’s the execution — the difference between Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun and Leslie Nielsen in 2001: A Space Travesty.
Yet there are still some great scenes in CZ12 that I can’t deny. The opening with that rollerblade suit is pretty cool for the most part, and it has the vibe of dangerous zaniness that always marked Jackie Chan’s best efforts of the past. I even think that the skydiving finale is almost great in how absolutely random it is. Sure, it doesn’t really work with the story (which, yeah, is often a secondary concern in Chan’s movies), but it works as a bizarre conceit that I’m willing to go with. Watching Chan airborne is like a mix of the last shots of Armor of God, the wind tunnel of Operation Condor, and the underwater fight from Police Story IV (aka First Strike).
The showstopper of CZ12 is the only big fight in the film, and you can tell just how much effort went into the choreography and visual gags. The fight comes way too late in the movie, which has been disappointingly light on fights overall. What we get throughout so much of CZ12 are unmemorable skirmishes that don’t amount to much. But this big fight, when it finally happens, is such a welcome reprieve from the rest of the mediocre slog that is CZ12. Chan’s in a giant warehouse full of gewgaws, doodads, catwalks, and props. Bad guys come at him from all angles, and he brings them down with such creativity and style. Sure the action is sped up about as much as an 80s Hong Kong flick, but this is Chan the immortal and I don’t care.
Well, at least I don’t care until he flips CG Chiclets into his mouth. That’s when I cringe and sigh. It was so much cooler when he just did stuff like that for real.
CG often undermines the best bits of action in CZ12. Some of that is just due to the chintzy obviousness of the CG. A great sequence in theory that involves attack dogs and a hedge maze is ruined by constant CG overhead shots. One bad CG shot in a pipe during the rollerbalde suit scene took me out of an otherwise fun set piece. There are also CG bees and a really painful logride during one scene of the film, and since the film was released in 3D in China, there are the requisite “in your face” shots. Chan has always been better than any digital effect, and yet he relies on them too much for storytelling rather than safety.
Personally, I think Chan’s real last hurrah was 2004’s New Police Story. It was a darker reboot of the Police Story franchise, and it was a wonderful mix of “greatest hits” and “he’s still got it.” The darkness isn’t the film’s appeal for me, though. New Police Story offered Chan’s fans a sense of a new direction. He’s fighting a younger generation of criminals and has to adapt. He’s mentoring someone to be an ass-kicking supercop. More than that, the final confrontation is a game of wits where the solution isn’t to be tougher and faster than the young whelp he’s up against. Instead it’s about using his years of experience to be smarter and better. That’s something that I hoped would carry through in this stage of Chan’s career — the ability to outsmart as an integral strategy for outfighting, the sense of an older master besting opponents through years of knowledge — but it seems to have stalled without follow through with New Police Story.
In the audio commentary for the original Drunken Master, writer and Hong Kong movie enthusiast Ric Meyers said that Jackie Chan has always felt the need to top himself, but it’s so hard to do. In fact, it gets harder and harder given his tremendous body of work, the constraints of studios, and the unavoidable effects of age. Meyers ended his point by saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that the only person who could really beat Jackie Chan is Jackie Chan. CZ12 proves how true that is.