Kung fu king Jackie Chan, arguably the best-known human on the planet, was once a kung fu prodigy following in his father’s swift footsteps. At 12, Jaden Smith is also a child star, following in his talented father’s footsteps. And even if the dangerously cute son of Will and Jada Smith isn’t a martial artist, he is smart, quick, and poised enough to hold a screen for two hours.
I’ll be candid here. I’ve seen every Rocky at least five times. I am a complete sucker for the little guy who fights back to topple the big bully formula. That’s the story here with the remake of the 1980s Karate Kid. Only instead of Japanese karate, the name of the game is kung fu. The setting is today’s Beijing, and instead of avuncular Pat Morita, we have the amazing Jackie Chan, who at 55 still has technique, and acting skill to burn. Plus he’s sexy.
So even if you’re not a 15-year-old boy looking to be dazzled by the positively super-human displays of kung fu, you’ll have plenty to chew on. Tons of aphorisms. Predictable confrontations. And there’s always the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. The slender plot of Karate Kid is shamelessly splashed with enough scenic footage to fuel a thousand tour groups.
Smith arrives in Beijing with his mother overplayed by Taraji P. Henson, after his dad dies and mom’s Detroit company sends her to China (I’m so sure…). The first day of school, the tiny Smith is picked on by a pack of Chinese bullies who just happen to be students of a malevolent kung fu master. Smith is beaten up over and over until Chan – playing Mr. Han the maintenance man at the apartment complex – steps in and single-handedly creams a pack of young toughs. This one scene is an encyclopedia of kung fu master moves, and choreographed to send chills down your spine.
Mr. Han agrees to teach Jaden how to defend himself. And so the inevitable training process begins.
Pick up jacket, take off jacket. Pick up jacket, take off jacket. This goes on for weeks, until, after a journey to a high mountaintop for spiritual commitment (and some Chinese Chamber of Commerce photo ops), the real kung fu training begins. (You can practically hear the theme from Rocky swelling the background).
The fun is in watching the hip, plucky young Smith match attitude with Chan’s seasoned abilities. And of course you know how it ends.
In the middle of this cultural stir-fry is a charming/silly flirtation between Smith and a dimpled violin student who gives him something to fight for. And in the end, the tournament matches are truly breathtaking. A bit more violent than I expected, but hey my own kung fu training was truncated by an ill-fated decision to study veterinary neuro-surgery in Manila a few years ago.
Dutch director Harald Zwart is a bit klutzy and long-winded (20 minutes could have been shaved off with no harm done), but his cameraman knows how to milk the energy of martial arts training as well as some gorgeous local color, both gritty urban scenes and the soaring obligatory Great Wall shots.
Jackie Chan is a revelation. Playing a troubled character whose old wounds eventually bubble up to the surface, he gives gravitas (and a sense of play) to every scene. His battered body, showing the effects of having broken every major bone at least once, may not be as quicksilver as it was 25 years ago. But this part gives him a chance to go deep with some instrospective moments. It was a surprise to me that Chan the kung fu genius is also an accomplished actor who knows how to take his time, how to play a scene with patience. “Everything is ….kung fu,” his character intones. I get it. I’m rushing to Netflix to order a dozen of Chan’s films. And in Jaden Smith – too small to be believable as a kung fu champion, but big enough to light up any screen – we watch a star being born.
Big kung fun for $8.