This film is based loosely on historical events. The Summer Palace was built in Beijing in 1750. It was filled with marvellous treasures, in particular bronze statues of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. In 1860 the palace was plundered by French and British troops. The statues were too heavy to carry away, so the heads were removed and transported back to Europe. They found their way into the hands of private collectors, and over the next 150 years they were sold and resold, individually or in groups, for ever increasing sums of money. For instance, in 2009 two of the statues (or rather their separated heads) were sold for 28 million Euros. The Chinese government considers the artefacts to be stolen and demands that they be returned to China free of charge, but after this length of time there are practical problems. The original thieves are dead, and the current owners paid a lot of money to acquire the statues. Anyone who has paid millions of dollars for a work of art will be understandably reluctant to give it away for free.
So much is the truth behind the story. In the film a large company called MP is attempting to collect all 12 bronze heads with the intention of selling them for profit. They're actually more devious. They intend to create fakes of the statues and sell the fakes. The company has an underground lair with dozens of highly skilled artists faking all sorts of paintings and other items, aided by modern technologies. The owner boasts that his fakes have fooled experts and are displayed in art galleries all over the world, while he owns the originals.
The company already has eight of the heads. They hire JC, an experienced thief, to steal the remaining four. JC is played by Jackie Chan, in case you couldn't guess. This time he isn't a good guy, although he slowly develops a conscience as the film progresses. He allies himself with a Chinese activist group in Paris that wants to steal the heads to return them to China. They don't realise that when he gets them he'll give them to MP instead.
This isn't one of Jackie Chan's better films. The action sequences are too exaggerated to be credible. For instance, in one scene he jumps out of a plane with three other men and fights them in free fall before they open their parachutes. That seems so unrealistic. Skydiving is difficult anyway, but fighting in the air and still keeping control, jumping from one opponent to another to fight all three?
The best parts of the film are when Jackie fights normally, as we're used to him from his other films. There's a beautiful 15-minute fight scene half way though. If it had all been that good I would have awarded five stars.The film's first hour is boring, with too many superfluous subplots adding unnecessary confusion. If you're a Jackie Chan fan like me I'm sure you'll want to watch the film at least once, but you'll probably only want to rewatch the outstanding fight scenes, of which there aren't enough.
There are 12 film posters portraying the 12 Chinese zodiac signs. I'm including them here for reference purposes. You can click on them to enlarge them.
Overall the film reminds me in its subject matter and style of the television series "Relic Hunter", which was broadcast from 1999 to 2002. I don't mean that as a compliment. The series starred Tia Carrere, one of America's sexiest actresses, but the series managed to make her look exceedingly unsexy from week to week. The action scenes looked cheap and unrealistic. The first hour of "Chinese Zodiac" looked like an episode of "Relic Hunter". It started to pick up in the second hour, but it was too late to save the film.
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