Saturday, October 19, 2013

Chinese Zodiac

Apparently, this is another case of AMC booking a Chinese movie themselves rather than through a distributor like China Lion or Well Go, at least by the look of the poster behind the box office. It's certainly not a practice I'm complaining about(*), as it's giving me the chance to see movies I might not otherwise get a chance to see outside a festival on the big screen, but I do wonder what sort of limbo it's going to fall into before hitting video. I presume Well Go or one of the smaller distributors will pick it up - why would AMC grab any rights but the first-run theatrical ones - but that could be a while.

(*) Well, okay, I was actually complaining as soon as I got out of the movie, as it was fifteen to twenty minutes shorter than the listings on-line suggested, and it certainly seemed to be the result of an ugly dubbing job, especially in a few scenes where it seems like characters don't speak English at one moment, needing a translation, but are using the language the next, which makes sense only if the character is really speaking Mandarin. I may just have been confused on that count, though, as looking at the movie's IMDB entry, it may not have been dubbed so much as mostly shot in English, which is screwy in an entirely different way. Either way, there's no nearly as much Mandarin spoken as you might expect, and it certainly felt like we were getting something not quite right.

That may in some ways be fitting, as it looks like neither of the previous Armor of God movies has ever been made available subtitled in the USA; even the Blu-ray versions released in the past couple of years still have the English-language soundtrack. Which is ridiculous, and makes me wonder just what whoever purchased the remains of Miramax has a hold of and what they can use.

Ah, well. As far as Chan's recent movies go, this is not Little Big Soldier, and the bloopers at the end unfortunately gives way to a greatest hits package that will probably do nothing but remind the audience of just how awesome Jackie used to be. I think one of the biggest issues here is just the changing film industry Jackie Chan finds himself in - for a long time, Hong Kong was a pretty static environment - they could afford to make films of a certain size and they did that sort of crime/martial-arts movie better than anybody else did. Chan's movies weren't sophisticated, but they showcased what he was good at fantastically. Coming to America got him in some bigger productions, and while he was smart to split those with old-fashioned things back home, that didn't stay put, either: China's film industry has been growing huge and more or less swallowing Hong Kong's, so blockbusters are suddenly the name of the game over there too. For a while, the People's Republic was where Jackie was the most popular, so he's been tailoring his output for that market even more than many of his contemporaries. The end result is that both his international and "domestic" audiences want bigger things than he's really good at producing, and it's hard to make old-fashioned Cantonese films these days even if his ambitions hadn't understandably increased.

So Chinese Zodiac is a bit of a mess, but it's still a pretty entertaining one once you start looking at what it does well rather than wishing it were something else. Hopefully Jackie's got a few more at least this good in him before he's reduced to full-time mentor duty.

Shi er sheng xiao (Chinese Zodiac)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 October 2013 at AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, 4K DCP)

It's not just one thing that has brought Jackie Chan to the point where his latest movie is something of a loud, sloppy mess, but everything working together: Age takes a toll on a performer this physical. Hollywood success puts international markets more explicitly in mind when making a big movie, while the mainland Chinese market pulls in other directions. Fortunately, underneath all that, Jackie still puts together good action, good enough that seeing it on the big screen's a welcome treat.

This time around, he's playing "J.C.", the head of a team of treasure hunters who, this time around, are looking for a set of twelve animal head busts representing the Chinese Zodiac looted from the Winter Palace a hundred and fifty years ago. Some are hidden, sold at auction, or lost, and to find and/or steal them, J.C., Bonnie (Zhang Lan-xin), David (Liao Fan), and Simon (Kwon Sang-woo) will need the help of idealistic young preservationist Coco (Yao Xingtong) and broke French aristocrat Catherine (Linda Weissbecker).

Chan's career has, with a few noteworthy exceptions, been a long string of movies with just enough story to tie five or six impressive action sequences together, and Chinese Zodiac is no exception. In fact, it's probably more slapdash than usual, with an opening flash-forward that the movie never quite gets around to fitting into the story, off-screen issues meant to humanize the mercenary characters (but which, popping up as they do as one-sided phone calls, tend to come off as annoying mosquitoes to be slapped away), and silly last-minute changes that render any sense of accomplishment from the action scenes moot. J.C. and company spend much of the movie working for the villains, which could be interesting, but mostly just leaves them with little to push against until the "Max Profit Corporation" becomes even more cartoonishly evil than its name suggests. Admittedly, roughly fifteen minutes has been cut from the original Chinese version for the American release, though much of that is likely heavy-handed Chinese flag-waving (enough material about how China suffered at the hands of foreigners remains to make the point, but Chinese films seldom stop at "enough" these days).

Full review at EFC.

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