With this second sequel to Armour of God (1986) clown prince of kung fu Jackie Chan revived his daredevil treasure hunter character after a gap of twenty-two years. Those that thought Chan was past his prime were proven wrong when CZ12 (a.k.a. Chinese Zodiac) became the highest-grossing film of his career. Along the way Jackie also set a Guiness World Record for having the most production credits in one film including among others as writer, director, cameraman, action choreographer, stunt double and soundtrack composer. He basically did everything.
Our man JC plays, er, JC who with his crack team of kung fu kicking treasure hunters: Simon (Kwon Sang-Woo), Bonnie (Zhang Lan-Xin) and David (Liao Fan), specialize in unearthing valuable artifacts for high-paying megalomaniacal business tycoon Morgan (Oliver Platt). The latest item on Morgan’s wish list is a set of bronze heads based on the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. After a thorough investigation, JC discovers the treasures were stolen during the infamous sacking of the Summer Palace in 1860 and that the European explorers responsible may have been shipwrecked on a deserted island. A wild globe-trotting adventure pairs JC with Coco (Yao Xingtong), an idealistic student activist who believes the bronze heads should be returned to China, and Catherine (Laura Weissbecker), a French aristocrat with a personal connection to the treasure. Amidst martial arts battles with French gangsters, South Sea pirates and rival treasure hunters, the passionate beliefs of several imprisoned students challenge JC’s hitherto mercenary attitude till he finally takes a stand against the corporate crooks.
CZ12 proved somewhat controversial with some lambasting the film as a propaganda piece espousing Jackie’s newfound fervent nationalism. Things were not helped by the star bumbling into a series of regrettable gaffes during his international publicity tour. Nevertheless it remains rather audacious of Jackie to craft an action-comedy that delves into the turbulent history of Chinese-European relations exploring such thorny issues as art theft, grave robbing and the Opium War. He uses the squabbling heroines Coco and Catherine as ideological stand-ins for their respective nations. Coco resents the French duchess for having a family legacy built on the theft of so many priceless Chinese relics while Catherine asserts, not unreasonably, that she should not be judged by the sins of her ancestors. For all the accusations of xenophobia levelled against the film it is worth pointing out that Catherine and Coco grow to respect one another while Jackie himself gives an impassioned speech stressing that people should not use the values of today to judge the mistakes of the past.
Although sincere the messages underlining the movie are handled clumsily. Besides, we don’t go to a Jackie Chan movie to be lectured, we go to see knockabout action comedy and death-defying stunts. Given Jackie’s advancing years it is no surprise CZ12 relies a little more on special effects than the kind of breakneck, bone-crunching stunt-work that has been his stock in trade in the past, although he still flings himself about like an action star a third his age. Happily in terms of craftsmanship, imagination and spectacle the film more than delivers as the most full-throttle Jackie Chan adventure since Who Am I? way back in 1998. Recycling some motifs from the earlier films and drawing elements from popular Hollywood franchises like The Fast & the Furious, Ocean’s Eleven and the Pirates of the Caribbean films (look out for the Japanese pirate dressed like Jack Sparrow), CZ12 delivers its fair share of memorable set-pieces. Among the highlights: the opening where JC speeds down a highway in an armoured suit lined with rollerblades, his escape from ferocious guard dogs through a grass labyrinth while grappling with an hilariously uncooperative parachute, the ride atop a giant tree trunk through a jungle chasm and especially the climactic, jaw-dropping and suspenseful sky dive above an active volcano!
Though the plot meanders the action stays pacy and the intricate slapstick fu bear the same familiar giddy style and imagination. On the downside, several sub-plots fall flat including JC’s ongoing efforts to repair his relationship with an unseen significant other and the blink and you’ll miss ’em gag cameos from Shu Qi and Daniel Wu don’t add up to much. Though JC’s team includes long legged Bonnie as a capable action girl, by and large the female characters are the same shrill, whiny types found in Operation Condor (1991). For the first half Jackie leaves much of the fighting to his young co-stars but explodes into a whirlwind of fury for the impressive third act warehouse showdown. Mainland star star Zhang Lan-Xin also impresses with her bare knuckle bout against cocky Caucasian villainess Katie (Caitlin Dechelle) which has a surprising outcome. The film also has a charming message about rival fighters learning to admire each other. All in all, CZ12 may not be classic Jackie Chan but delivers top class entertainment with spectacle galore.