The remake takes the basic plot of the original 1984 film and makesjust a few cosmetic changes to it. The main character, instead of awhite teenager (named Daniel-san) who moves from Jersey to California,is now a black 12 year-old (named Dre Parker) that moves from Detroitto China. Instead of learning karate from an old Japanese guy, helearns kungfu from Jackie Chan. And you wouldn't be the first to thenask "why isn't it called the Kungfu kid then?" But really, does itmatter? The fighting style is different, but the soul of the movie, I'mhappy to report, is the same.
Something that occurred to me early on was that in the movie poster andopening credits, Jaden Smith gets top billing. Yeah, he's playing theeponymous character and all, and he did a pretty good job in Pursuit ofHappiness, but the other guy is Jackie Chan, a legendary superstar inboth the Eastern and Western movie scene! There were so many ways whereSmith could've gone wrong: he could've easily just played it easy andjust been a shallow character throwing Fresh Prince attitude around inan Asian society (like Lil Bow Wow in Tokyo Drift), but he insteadchanneled a truly frightened and vulnerable little boy. And that's whyhe earns that top billing.
From the opening scene where he and his mother are moving out ofDetroit, Smith just sucks you in with his innocence and sweetness. Nomacho bravado; just a kid who's sad he's leaving his home. And here hesidesteps another landmine he could've just been this mopey kidchanneling sad puppy-dog eyes for the entire movie like Frodo, but whenhe meets the cute Chinese girl that snags his heart, the charming FreshPrince genes in him comes out to play.
In the original movie, Daniel-san was a teenager who moved interstate.Smith's character is a kid who moved to a completely different country.As an American kid in China who can barely speak a word of Chinese, heis not only even more isolated, but his age also means he is less ableto deal with the dramatic change in lifestyle. He's scared, he'slonely, and you can see this on his face even before the bully makeshis entrance and smacks the crap out of him.
And here is why Smith is such a good young actor. A lot of actors areafraid to look like scared little wimps on camera because it's not veryglam, but Smith goes there. He goes way out there, and you will see onthe screen a scared little boy who's barely holding it together. Andthis is where the movie really works, and this is why Jaden Smithreally earns his top billing. Dre Parker is more likable thanDaniel-san, and Smith does the scared little boy character so well thatyour heart will just crack into a hundred pieces for him. Daniel-sanfought in that tournament because he's the underdog and he wants to putthe bully in his place, but Dre fights because he doesn't want to beafraid anymore. And because of this one key factor, this deeperconnection with the protagonist, I think the new film is a lot betterthan the original, iconic it may be.
And as for the fight sequences, it's both brutal and stylish, and notonly does it surpass the original in terms of stunt work, but it canreally hold its own against other kungfu movies. And these are littlekids that are fighting too! I'm not going to spoil it, but wait tillyou see Jaden Smith's version of the Crane Kick. It's awesome.
How does Jackie Chan compare with Pat Morita? Well, Jackie Chan made acareer for himself by playing the bumbling clown who can also do crazystunts. In this movie, he only fights once, and he plays a more subduedand serious role. And while Smith's acting clearly outshines Chan's, itis actually pretty good to see Jackie Chan just play a regular guy. Hissurrogate father relationship with Smith played out extremely well, andyou can see quite a good chemistry between the two. Chan's side-storyabout his family is one of the weaker parts of the story, but itdoesn't detract much from the story.
Rounding off the coming-of-age stories in this movie is of course, thelove arc involving the Chinese girl. The scenes of Dre trying to Romeothe girl were so funny and sincere that it really didn't feel likefluff in between the cool fight scenes at all. This arc was more thanjust a reason for Dre to enter the tournament to fight the bully,because the blossoming relationship between the two really showed hischaracter growing from a boy to a young man. It reminded you ofchildhood innocence, and once again made Smith's character so much morereal.
The movie is far from perfect though, with a few moments that justpulls you out and makes you go "what the hell?" Like Dre's mother, forexample. I don't care how proud of your son you are, but when your boyis getting beat within inches of his life, you don't cheer for him toget up. And while I can buy how good Dre becomes at kungfu under JackieChan's tutelage, there are just some things he does in the tournamentthat are way too impressive and makes you ask "when did he learn that?"But these moments are few and far between, and it only takes you out ofthe experience for a few seconds before you get back into the excitingride.
When this movie was announced, I didn't think it was necessary toremake the 1984 movie. But now that I've seen it, I'm glad they didbecause for once, the remake surpasses the sequel.