It echoes the 1984 original endlessly, but expands it immeasurably – training montages take place on the Great Wall instead of a sour looking beachfront, the shopfronted Karate class is changed into a thousand strong academy which brings to mind the incredible opening to the Beijing Olympics; yet it never looks to poke fun at or outdo the original.
There’s some obvious callbacks right from the start, with some music choices early on having a distinct flavour of the 1980s, and it works – because it never strays into parody, one of Zwart’s best decisions here. Wink at the camera even slightly and the spell is broken. Instead what you have here is a 21st century retelling of a classic underdog story – this kind of remake I have no problem with because it is its own film, with its own world.
Jaden Smith plays Dre, a young kid uprooted to China with his mother to find himself adrift in an alien world, and almost immediately in trouble with the local thugs. The reclusive handyman of their new apartment is Mr Han, who saves Dre from a savage beating in one of the film’s best scenes – contrary to what you’ve been told Jackie Chan barely lays a hand on the kids – as Dre says afterwards, ‘they beat each other up’. Their relationship begins slowly and it’s training montage a go go.
China provides a stunning backdrop and the entrance to the Kung Fu academy is visually breathtaking as is the trip to the Forbidden City, and while the film does fall foul of becoming a travelogue now and again there’s enough chases through the rickety suburbs to allow that. Stereotypes too rear their heads now and again too (how many times does a Chinese person ask to touch the new arrivals’ hair?), and this is inevitable, it’s stops short of being insulting however and much is made of China’s natural beauty.
Stories are told and retold over the years, and all important when stepping into this particular arena is to have respect for the audience and the material, and that is in evidence here. This is a well told tale, with only a few missteps and emerges as a surprisingly enjoyable film. Jaden Smith may sometimes stray into an imitation of his father to help him through the tough parts, but when he does act on his own he is far better, and looks to be set to follow his parents into the limelight.
Jackie Chan is the most impressive presence though, adding shades to the often cartoonish portrayals of his past there is one scene which I will not spoil for you when I was taken aback – none of the erratic clowning around here, just a moment which comes out of nowhere and hits exactly where it needs to. The decision to tone down his act pays off immeasurably and he has a vulnerability which is a nice change to the great Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi.
The fight scenes are sometimes let down by some bad choices in the editing – quick cuts and erratic camera movements dull the impact and halt the natural flow to the fights, but if my screening is anything to go by this will find a wide audience (and there were a lot of families there), there was even a healthy applause at the end.
It’s long. At around 135 minutes we arrive at the final tournament on the verge of exhaustion, and remember that we know how this is going to end – there’s no suspense to keep us interested, every step is obvious and if it wasn’t for the work done early on in the relationship between Smith and Chan, we would probably begrudge the final showdown.
But it holds, and moments continue to mirror those of the original and if you know Avildsen’s film they will come thick and fast as the tournament reaches its climax. Occasionally the script is needlessly didactic, and the romantic subplot halts the film in its tracks, but this is a fun film, which goes to show that you can remake a classic, albeit one bathed in a very rose tint, and make something unexpectedly good.