"The length of an action film star's career is this long" says 59 year old martial arts legend Jackie Chan, as he hold his hands up, less than a foot apart. "I've become a legend because I've survived doing it this long" he says, now holding his hands very wide. In case the message wasn't obvious, the star elaborates further that he often wonders how much longer he can continue to be as lucky as he has been. What if he is crippled or worse? It's clear during the interview that Chan has given tremendous thought to where his career can go from here; he envisions comedy or adventure roles. But before that can come to pass, he wanted to make just one more epic martial arts movie in the "classic Jackie Chan style", as he uncompromisingly thinks of them.
Enter 2012's Chinese Zodiac (more commonly known as CZ12 in Hong Kong), which is kind of a reboot of his earlier films Armour of God (1987) and Armour of God II: Operation Condor (1991 - which I have a well worn VHS tape of). Chan reprises the role of Asian Hawk, a sort of scoundrel treasure hunter meets high tech thief. This character is unique in a sea of perpetual Chan nice guy characters, which is why I've always liked this series. In a way, Chinese Zodiac is an experiment involving known variables. Here's Chan in a familiar role, reviving a beloved series, trying on a globe hopping, treasure hunting adventure, all in an effort to show audiences that he doesn't have to nearly kill himself to entertain (meanwhile he actually is still bringing the type of insane artistry to his fight choreography that lifelong fans have come to expect.
The film feels cut from the cloth of Indiana Jones or Uncharted (in fact there's a spoilery set piece which would feel right at home among the adventures of Nate Drake), but brings a level of comedy and fun many will recall from the first National Treasure flick. Chan and his team of highly skilled thieves set out to recover the twelve bronze heads that make up the Chinese Zodiac, which were pilfered from the Old Summer Palace by the French and British during the Second Opium war. Some of these are secretly in the hands of rich illegal art collectors, leading to daring espionage flavored escapades, while others have been lost to time, which is where the film derives its globe trotting, treasure hunting vibe.
Forming the tent poles to hold all this aloft are some amazingly inventive fight sequences. Chan wasn't just paying lip service about a Classic Jackie Chan style movie, he brings the goods over and over again. It's nearly perfectly timed too, as whenever the film feels as though it's about to sag, BOOM: epic fight scene. Chan and his fight team don't miss a beat, incorporating any environmental object into the fracas, while still including the fun frivolity which permeates all of his best fight sequences. It's harder on the man, and some of hits don't feel as authentic, but the spectacle is there (I dare anyone to actually peel their eyes away during them).
Ultimately Chinese Zodiac or CZ12 is a solid entry in Jackie Chan's portfolio of martial arts opuses. This week marks perhaps the first chance for most American audiences to see it, as it only hit a few hundred screens stateside this past October- I hadn't even seen anything about it (which made me feel like a bad Chan fan until I found out that it hadn't played near me). Universal Studios released a Blu ray + digital combo pack on Tuesday with a slip cover containing art that would have you believe this is much more goofy, late career Chan comedy, rather than the rich martial arts film that it is.
There's only one special feature on this release, but it's a lengthy making of, narrated by Chan as he takes you through all of the various filming locations around the world, while also discussing his career and decision that this be his last major martial arts film. The man doesn't do anything by halves, setting two Guinness World Records while making the film: Most Stunts Performed by a Living Actor, and Most Credits in One Movie (he usurped previous record holder Robert Rodriguez's eleven with an unheard of fifteen).
As long walks into the sunset go, it doesn't get much better than Chinese Zodiac. Jackie Chan doesn't compromise his standards of martial ballet to get in one last hurrah. Fans will find themselves smiling broadly as impossible feats stretch across majestic world locales. As per usual, stick around for the end credits, which feature the customary montage of stunt mishaps, as well as a loving look back at many of Chan's earlier works. Whatever Jackie plans to do next, I'm sure it'll be fun. Me, I'm hoping he tries horror on for size. In the meantime, you can snag Chinese Zodiac on Blu Ray from Universal, out this week. Mania Grade: B/B+
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.
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