Hong Kong/China, 2012, colour, 2.35:1, 3-D, 122 mins.
Director: Cheng Long [Jackie Chan].
Cheng Long [Jackie Chan] bounces back in a modern action-adventure aimed squarely at kids.
The present day. While on a dangerous mission somewhere in Russia with his team of Bonnie (Zhang Lanxin), her husband Simon (Gweon Sang-u) and David (Liao Fan), professional super-thief JC (Cheng Long) is contacted by Jonathan (Li Zongsheng), a member of MC Corporation, to retrieve the seven remaining bronze heads originally looted from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French troops when they stormed and burned it to the ground in October 1860. Of the 12 bronze statue heads, representing the 12 Chinese Zodiac animals, five (Ox, Monkey, Tiger, Pig, Horse) have been progressively sold in European auction houses between 2000 and 2007 for a total of US$107 million. MC Corp, headed by Lawrence Morgan (Oliver Platt), and employing his son Michael (Shi Zu’nan), specialises in inflating the value of rare artifacts, as well as art forgery. Jonathan offers JC €1 million for each of the remaining heads, plus a bonus if he can find the Dragon head. Posing as National Geographic reporter Martin Shangguan, JC meets Chinese art professor Guan (Wang Qingxiang) who has replicas of all 12 heads and manages to secretly download 3-D imagery of the Rat and Rabbit heads to his team in order to make their own replicas. These he takes to Paris, getting an official French customs import certificate on the way, and meets one of the professor’s students, Wu Keke (Yao Xingtong), who works with her brother Wu Qing (Chen Bolin) for a small organisation aiming to repatriate lost and “stolen” national treasures. Finding out from her that the Rat and Rabbit heads are owned by Count Marceau, JC and his team break into the count’s heavily-guarded chateau and steal them and some other artifacts. Barely escaping, JC bumps into Wu Keke, who helps to rescue him; as a result, the count’s son, Pierre (Rosario Amedeo), mistakenly thinks Wu Keke is in league with JC. Arrested by the police, JC goes free as he can prove the heads are his, not the count’s, as he has a customs certificate “proving” their ownership. JC is then approached by Catherine de Sichel (Laura Weissbecker), a bankrupt young aristocrat, whose family owns the Rooster head and other rare Chinese artificats. Thinking (like Wu Keke) that JC is a genuine reporter, she asks his help in finding out what happened to her great-grandfather, one of the original looters of the Old Summer Palace, when his ship Indestructible sank in Asia on its way back to Europe. JC and his team, plus Catherine de Sichel and Wu Keke, find the island where it sank and then stumble across the ship itself, packed with treasure as well as two more of the bronze heads. After escaping from pirates, Wu Keke and Catherine deSichel finally realise the truth about JC and his team, and back in France JC realises he’s also been tricked by MC Corp, which is now turning nasty.
Though the plot only barely makes sense – but the action comes so thick and fast that it doesn’t really matter – CZ12 十二生肖 is easily the best action-adventure by Cheng Long 成龙 [Jackie Chan] since The Accidental Spy 特务迷城 (2001) and recalls the heyday of his career in the 1980s and 1990s, especially international extravaganzas directed by himself like Armour of God 龙兄虎弟 (1986) and the more routine Armour of God II: Operation Condor 飞鹰计划 (1991). In that respect, the film is a considerable bounceback for Cheng after a decade that’s seen him either in guest roles or trying to maintain his career in a variety of roles, both comic and serious. Unlike those 1980s and 1990s films, however, CZ12 is pretty much aimed at children rather than adults: it’s as clean as a whistle, brightly shot throughout, exists in a modern fantasy world of cartoony heroes and villains, and basically exists to make its director, star, scriptwriter, producer and action choreographer look the best he can.
And that it does. Cheng, now 58, looks his youngest in years, and acquits himself well in action scenes and fights that either cleverly disguise the obvious limitations of his age or use visual effects to jazz up sequences (the nifty opening setpiece being a case in point). Despite the artifice, Cheng still manages to surprise occasionally with stunts that belie his years and are shot in his trademark way that prove he wasn’t doubled. The boyish charm still comes over as manufactured, but Cheng at least makes no attempt at any kind of real acting, simply because it’s unnecessary in such a vehicle.
On the acting side, CZ12, like Armour and its ilk, bends over backwards to be “international”, with dialogue sliding back and forth between Chinese, English and French, a cast that includes westerners and South Koreans alongside Mainlanders, Hong Kongers and Taiwanese, and the usual sprinkling of Cheng’s martial arts pals and discoveries. The last include willowy newcomer Zhang Lanxin 张蓝心, 26, a former national taekwondo champion in China, who’s especially foxy as Chan’s female sidekick Bonnie, plus young US martial artists-cum-actors Caitlin Dechelle and Marc Canonizado, who appear in the latter stages (with Dechelle and Zhang in a regulation girl-on-girl fight). In the final few minutes, actor Wu Yanzu 吴彦祖 [Daniel Wu] and actress Shu Qi 舒淇 pop up in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it one-shot cameos, as well as former actress Lin Fengjiao 林凤娇 [Joan Lin] (aka Mrs. Jackie Chan) in an in-joke that stamps the whole movie as a family affair.
Apart from French actress Laura Weissbecker, who gets considerable mileage out of screaming at her co-players to “please speak English!”, the supporting cast are more part of an ensemble than developed characters in their own right. South Korea’s Gweon Sang-u 권상우 | 权相佑 (the knife-thrower in 71 – Into the Fire 포화속으로, 2010) doesn’t get much else to do apart from look handsome and make remarks about his rocky marriage to Zhang’s Bonnie; China’s Liao Fan 廖凡, as the other member of the team, is slightly more characterful, in a cheeky-chappie way; while his compatriot Yao Xingtong 姚星彤 (Amor 感情生活, 2010) is either cute or grumpy, depending on whether she’s lecturing Cheng’s character about pillaged national treasures. In addition, the long, rather chaotic pirate sequence that takes up most of the middle of the film depends a lot on spotting the various actors (Yu Seung-jun 유승준 | 刘承俊 [Steve Yoo], Asano Nagahide 浅野长英 etc.) who are cameoing beneath goofy make-up or prosthetics.
More and more in recent years, Cheng’s films have come with lectures attached – and in CZ12 it’s about foreign powers (= the West) stealing countries’ artifacts (and not just China’s). The film is dedicated not only to Cheng’s mentor, the late producer He Guanchang 何冠昌 [Leonard Ho], and parents Chen Zhiping 陈志平 and Chen Lili 陈莉莉, but also to those who fight for such treasures’ repatriation. The lectures don’t slow up the action much but they do become repetitive and irritating, and result in dialogue that’s plain pamphleteering, especially when the script has to work out how to turn Cheng’s own character of a super-thief into a selfless national hero in the final stages.
On a technical level the budget is all up on the screen and, though the visual effects aren’t super-slick, the film’s target audience won’t care in the least.
Presented by Jackie & JJ Productions (HK), Beijing Dragon Garden Culture & Art (CN), Huayi Brothers Media (CN), Emperor Film Production (HK). Produced by China Hero (Asia) (HK).
Script: Cheng Long [Jackie Chan], Tang Jili [Stanley Tong], Deng Jingsheng, Chen Xunqi [Frankie Chan]. Photography: Wu Wenzheng, Huang Yongxiong, Ben Nott. Editing: Qiu Zhiwei [Yau Chi-wai]. Music: Wang Zongxian [Nathan Wang]. Art direction: Huang Ruimin. Costume design: Zhuang Zhiliang [Thomas Chong]. Action: Cheng Long [Jackie Chan], He Jun, Han Guanhua, Wu Gang. Visual effects: Max Chan. Car stunts: Luo Lixian [Bruce Law]. Second unit direction: Bradley James Allan. Executive direction: Chen Xunqi [Frankie Chan].
Cast: Cheng Long [Jackie Chan] (JC), Gweon Sang-u (Simon), Liao Fan (David), Yao Xingtong (Wu Keke/Coco), Zhang Lanxin (Bonnie), Laura Weissbecker (Catherine de Sichel), Wu Yanzu [Daniel Wu] (hospital doctor), Shu Qi (David’s wife), Lin Fengjiao [Joan Lin] (JC’s wife), Alaa Safi (Vulture), Rosario Amedeo (Pierre Marceau), Caitlin Dechelle (Katie, Vulture’s sidekick), Marc Canonizado (skydiver at end), Li Zongsheng [Jonathan Lee] (Jonathan), Chen Bolin (Wu Qing, Wu Keke’s younger brother), Yu Seung-jun [Steve Yoo] (pirate king), Lu Huiguang [Ken Lo] (henchman), Asano Nagahide (pirate), Bai Bing (Lili/Lily), Lin Peng (reporter), Oliver Platt (Lawrence Morgan), Wang Qingxiang (Guan, professor), Shi Zu’nan (Michael Morgan, Lawrence Morgan’s son), Andrew Dasz (Spanish reporter), Jill Kelsey (reporter), Rani Bheemuck (Indian reporter), Emilie Guillot (French reporter), Keoni Everington (auctioneer), Myriam Blanckaert (French maid), Kenny G (aeroplane pilot), Igor Darbo (French police officer), Stéphane Girondeaud (French security guard).
Release: Hong Kong, 20 Dec 2012; China, 20 Dec 2012.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 20 Jan 2013.)