‘Chinese Zodiac’ movie review: Jackie Chan’s last major action picture?

October 25, 2013

Jackie Chan movies are usually silly, yet rarely boring. But “Chinese Zodiac” (a.k.a. “CZ12”) is often dull, even after 15 minutes were cut for American audiences. A more ruthless edit of this globe-trotting, aggressively multilingual action farce/cultural-patrimony lecture would be well justified.

“Chinese Zodiac,” Chan’s 101st movie, is nominally the third in a series that began with 1986’s “Armour of God.” The writer-director-producer-star again plays a looter of international antiquities, this time named “JC.” He’s a Chinese Indiana Jones, but with a larcenous soul and a “Mission Impossible”-style high-tech team.

The opening action sequence is one of the movie’s best, even if its connection to the plot is murky. JC infiltrates a military base in a former Soviet republic, then escapes down a windy road by using a wheel-studded Buggy Rollin’ suit that turns his entire person into a rollerblade.

It turns out that JC and his band work for a dealer in (and forger of) art and antiques, Morgan (Oliver Platt). Morgan has a long list of things he wants JC to pilfer, but his priority is getting 12 sculpted heads, representing the signs of the Chinese zodiac, that were looted from Beijing by European conquerors in 1860. (These were also the inspiration for Ai Wei Wei’s “Circle Of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” shown recently at the Hirshhorn.)

Posing as a National Geographic reporter, JC travels to France, where a collector holds two of the heads. He meets Coco (Yao Xingtong), a young woman who seeks to return the sculptures to China. She tags along with JC for the rest of the tale, not realizing for the longest time that he wants to steal and sell the heads, not return them to China.

The quest takes JC, Coco and the rest of his team to a few French chateaux, and then the South Pacific, where they encounter buffoonish pirates led by a Jack Sparrow-like hippie/buccaneer. This section of the movie, choked with slapstick and tropical vegetation, is almost as dreary as Coco’s earnest lectures on repatriating looted treasures.

The action culminates with a skydiving chase over an active volcano, but that’s less impressive than a sequence in a secret art-forging lab, where both JC and his female sidekick (Zhang Lanxin) engage in exciting and witty bouts with martial-arts adepts who are nearly their equals. As always in Chan-directed movies, lithe bodies in motion upstage plot, dialogue and special effects.

This is said to be the last of the 59-year-old’s major action pictures, and it ends with a montage of stunts from his earlier films, as well as a voice-over message from the star to his fans. They deserve better than “Chinese Zodiac,” but perhaps Chan will rediscover the charm of his earlier work while making movies on a smaller scale.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

½

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains cartoon violence and brief nudity. In English, Mandarin, French and Russian with subtitles. 106 minutes.

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