Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Jumpin' Jack is Still Jumpin

I recently watched Jackie Chan's latest film, Chinese Zodiac, written and directed by Chan himself, and what did I think about it? It was a pretty fun flick and overall a good popcorn-muncher, but I do have to say, in contrast to the rest of the Hong Kong/Chinese film industry and the way it's evolved in the past 30 years, Chinese Zodiac seemed like a quaint relic from a bygone era. Certainly the effects, sets, editing, cast, and even the technology depicted in the film were all up-to-date at the time of this post, but the way the film was paced feels as though it were made during the "golden age" of Hong Kong cinema. Perhaps this should come as unsurprising, as the film's creator consolidated his identity and subsequent fame during that period, but I feel I should explain a bit.

Jackie Chan as he appears in Chinese Zodiac
I believe Quentin Tarantino said it best in an interview featured on the 2001 North American DVD release of Iron Monkey, prior to his making of Kill Bill (which is essentially an homage to old-school East Asian cinema), when he said -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- that from the late '60s up to about the mid-'90s the majority of Hong Kong moviegoers were not exactly wealthy, and so films were often jam-packed with a multitude of dramatic elements, including but not restricted to romance, action, suspense, and plenty of melodrama. In other words, Hong Kong filmmakers were all about producing the most bang for their (and their audience's) buck and would cram in as much content as possible. Considering that until quite recently the average budget for a Hong Kong film was minuscule by Hollywood standards, this was quite important.

A much younger Jackie Chan as seen in Armour of God (also known as Operation Condor 2 -- despite the fact that Operation Condor was actually Armour of God 2 ** whew **), of which Chinese Zodiac is the third installment.
In those "golden" days Hong Kong production companies were turning out films at a pace that would make Henry Ford blush. The average running time for these films was around 90 minutes, and so the end product would often be a fast, furious, and formulaic film with a lightning-fast narrative packed with fight scenes, adventure, romance, comedy, and in many cases much more! Because of the fast pace of the narrative it was not uncommon for seemingly important story events or climaxes that would have been given a considerable screen time in a Hollywood production to be blown through in seconds in a Hong Kong one (such as a major character getting killed or a couple separating).

JC in Police Story (1989)
So why explain all of this? Because many of Jackie Chan's iconic films were made during this era and are prime examples of the aforementioned conventions. Watch Police Story, Project A, Drunken Master, or Operation Condor (Armour of God 2) and pay attention to just how many significant things happen during the 90-minute run time of these films and how much time is spent on each one. It's all rather sporadic. Interestingly, Chan's newest film follows this convention to a T. So what's the big deal?

One of the original Police Story (1989) posters.

Nowadays Hong Kong and Chinese films (formerly two separate entities that have more or less merged in present times) have begun to resemble much more closely the high production values and polished look of the average Hollywood-grade product, and as such the narratives of these films have slowed down considerably and the scripts themselves tend to have more focus. Even Chan's recent work has been more focused, less rapidly paced, and less centred around action. However, Chinese Zodiac features a script that could easily have been divided into six individual movies spanning an indeterminable number of genres at the very least!

2004's New Police Story, directed by Chan himself

The story centres around a fictitious historical relic that was taken out of China by French soldiers who attacked the country a century ago. Chan's character is hired by a sleazy antique dealer to get the relic so that it can be sold and reproduced for profit. The film has it all, with tonnes of action, comedy, and even a bit of romance, reminiscent of Chan's "golden age" material, and the pace doesn't let up until the end. The action is typical of Jackie Chan's work, and even though there are more wirework, stunt doubles, and CG than in his past movies (let's face it, he's almost 60!), Chan still does a number of impressive fight scenes and stunts himself. The funnest thing is that this is actually Armour of God 3 (or Operation Condor 2, if you will), which is a wonderful throwback if you're an old-school Jackie Chan fan.

Jackie sporting his roller suit in Chinese Zodiac 
Anyway, if you're itching for a throwback to the good ol' days of rough-and-tumble Hong Kong action cinema, then you'll likely find this a lot of fun. It really does feel like a blast from the past. Just a word of warning, though . . . it gets a little preachy in parts and it's, well . . . let's just say it's a Jackie Chan movie -- a lot of fun, but try not to think about it too much. A welcome return to form and more than a bit nostalgic.

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