Sunday, October 20, 2013

Chinese Zodiac Film Review

Overall Grade: C+

I saw Chinese Zodiac this past Saturday afternoon right after attending a professional conference of educators in downtown Chicago. At the conference, one of my graduate school professors recommended that I attend a workshop session being taught by one of the true legends in Christian education who was now in his eighties with failing health. The session was good, but it was clear that the years had stolen many of the best of his abilities. I was able to see glimpses of the character and intelligence that had influenced an entire discipline, but most of the time I saw someone who struggled to keep focus, often stumbling over words, getting off on tangents, and pausing for extended periods. If I were to have experienced this educator in his prime, like my current professors had, I’m sure there would still be struggles evident (no educator is perfect), but those particular qualities that made him so influential would not have been drowned out as they were in my session. Unfortunately, Chinese Zodiac felt like being back at that workshop catching only glimpses of the genius that once captivated and influenced an entire generation.


Chinese Zodiac is the unofficial sequel to Chan’s Operation Condor (1991) which was an unofficial sequel to Armour of God (1987), and is Chan's last "big action film".  Each of these films feature Jackie Chan as “Asian Hawk” (though he still goes by Jackie in the film) on a quest to beat others to acquire gold and historical relics. The quest results in many comedy of errors sequences and fighting; think Indiana Jones with a dash of James Bond funneled through the sensibility of Jackie Chan and shaken (not stirred).  In Chinese Zodiac, Jackie is on a quest to recover twelve lost bronze heads of the Chinese zodiac (how many are lost is a little confusing) that were taken from China by greedy imperial westerners back in the 1860’s.  That’s about as much of the plot needed to understand the movie, which is good, because that’s about as much of the plot that’s clearly discernible. Jackie can never seem to resist making a simple plot overly convoluted and weighed down by comedic hi-jinks, bad guys switching sides, and cheesy side stories.  That Jackie has come this far into his career and has failed to recognize the outright awfulness of the scripted comedy and drama of his films is a testament to his ego.

Is Chinese Zodiac a good film? I should say up front that Jackie Chan action films have to be judged on a different scale than regular films because his films are just not good "films". Story, character and themes are just excuses to set up a series of action or comedy sequences. How you judge a Jackie Chan film is entirely dependent on your ability to compartmentalize; enjoying the good bits without letting the awfulness of the rest influence the things you liked.  In the best Jackie Chan films, the good bits and Jackie's good nature were always strong enough to overcome the other terrible elements. We might compartmentalize the cheesy comedy of Legend of Drunken Master because it contained some of the greatest fight scenes ever put to film. We might compartmentalize the terrible chauvinism of Operation Condor because of Chan’s playful manner and epic motorcycle chase. We compartmentalize things we really enjoy because we know that no one or no thing is entirely perfect. Could we ever actually enjoy someone or something if we didn't compartmentalize?
Chan in 1994's Legend of Drunken Master

For two-thirds of Chinese Zodiac’s near two hour running time, the film is simply overwhelmed by Chan’s worst qualities. The first hour of the film contains two fun, but underwhelming action sequences; an opening escape sequence featuring Jackie making creative use of what amounts to a full rollerblading suit, and a mostly comedic escape attempt at a French chateau. These scenes are similar to Chan’s sequences in Winners and Sinners (1983) and Around the World in 80 Days (2004), but pale when compared to them or to most of Chan’s work.  It isn't until well past an hour into the film that we find the first decent action sequence with pirates in a dense jungle. The sequence’s competing groups, comedic back and forth, and great use of environment reminded me of the far superior sailors and cops brawl in Project A (1983).

Many of Chan’s familiar and fun aesthetic staples (Mitsubishi cars, creatively popping gum into his mouth, overly ridiculous incorporation of technology, playful parkour moments, etc.), show up in the first two-thirds of the film, but without a strong action sequence to deflect the impact, you are forced to directly endure the ridiculous plot, caricatured portrayal of westerners, atrocious dialogue, cheesy drama, and insulting chauvinism. Chan’s portrayal of women has always been an issue and this film shows no growth in that arena. To Chan (and most of Hollywood it seems), women are either completely shrill and dependent (think Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) or they are strong warriors (think Michelle Yeoh in Supercop). 


Just when I thought the whole film might be choked by Chan's worst qualities, the final third of the film is like a breath of fresh air. While still displaying some of the flaws I spoke of earlier, the final two major action sequences remind us of why we so eagerly overlooked those flaws in Chan’s earlier films. An extended action sequence in an underground counterfeiting headquarters features a great one on one sequence centering around the creative use of of couches, followed by a classic “a group of bad guys fight and chase Jackie through an environment filled with props that creatively become weapons” sequence. In particular, there is a moment where Chan finds himself fighting in a photography room that is right up there with some of his most creative and funny moments. The final action sequence features Jackie in a “sky-dive” fight that reminded me a lot of his air-tunnel fight in Operation Condor (1991) and his scuba tank fight in Police Story 4: First Strike (1996). This is the kind of blue sky (pun intended), out of the box, action sequence that feels distinctly Jackie. His creative use of the skydiving physics isn't visceral or bone-crunching, but it’s playful and fun.This is vintage Jackie Chan and it's reason enough to go see this film.

When was the last time you watched a Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Marx Brothers film? Thinking of their films, you probably recall the best moments; Chaplin’s light and delicate playfulness, Keaton’s cleverly staged gags, and the Marx Brothers’ quick-witted puns. You probably don’t recall the long stretches of boredom in some of those films; Chaplin’s overly long setups, Keaton’s feast or famine pacing, and some of the Marx Brothers musical interludes. It’s no different with many of the best action stars. We remember the best moments and tend to forget the worst. Chan's work is similar in that his best qualities can often be lifted from their context and enjoyed by themselves. Younger generations have encountered Jackie not through watching his full films, but through YouTube clips of his best fights, stunts, and gags. In doing so, they get to experience the genius of Chan out of context, much the same as those watching just clips of Chaplin, Keaton, or the Marx brothers would experience their genius, but none of their errors. Although all these men have some good overall films, I think it’s accurate to say that their particular genius was not in the sum, but in the part. 
A very good fight sequence set on couches

As I think back to the workshop session I attended this weekend, I know that I experienced only glimpses of the genius once held by an aging Christian educator. If I were to travel back in time and experience his classes at the height of his genius would he be free of errors and issues? No, probably not. This does not excuse his errors, just put them into perspective. While being able to appreciate his particular genius, I was also reminded of his shortcomings. In the same way, even though Chinese Zodiac shows Chan us an aging filmmaker whose errors are more evident than ever, we can still see glimpses of the genius that captivated and influenced generations. It's easy to just watch clips of Chan's best work on YouTube, just as it would be easy to watch clips of Chaplin's best work; but I think something essential is missed in doing so. To the extent that we are forced not only to interact with someone's genius, but also their faults, is the extent to which a work becomes more than just entertainment. 

I have tried to do a bit of a review of the film Chinese Zodiac, but as this film is Jackie big action swansong, I keep finding myself coming back to his legacy. The truth is, the film is just 'alright' and apart from the final third, the film is pretty bad. There's isn't much to talk about, unless the film is seen over and against against Chan's career. In an interview with the website Collider, Jackie was asked about his greatest treasure, "My treasure? I want to keep all my films for another 50 years or more, so that 100 years from now your grandchildren will be like, 'Wow! That’s Jackie Chan!'" If future generations only see Jackie's fights, stunts, and gags on YouTube then they might just respond the way he seems to want them to; and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. His contribution to cinema has earned him a great legacy.  However, being able to see both his genius and also his faults by watching all his films, including this last one, I think we know not the "Jackie Chan" that's being projected, but the Jackie behind the camera. Being able to know the real Jackie, the good and bad, is an even better gift than just the genius because it humanizes him. 

Which is a better gift to the world? Seeing the world's greatest martial arts comedian, or the real Jackie, warts and all?

What do you think?

For more information on what it means that this is Jackie Chan's "last big action" film check out my guest article on Scott Mendelson's Blog
"The Punctuation Point of an Action Career"

Also, Check out my Top 100 Jackie Chan Action Scenes

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