Like many who had seen the original, I was skeptical of this remake. Seriously, the original is one of the great cheesy underdog movies of the 1980’s, largely due to the performances managing to perfectly straddle the line between over-the-top and sincere. Many attempts at duplicating this have failed, primarily due to the bet hedging in Hollywood these days. Thankfully, I can report that somehow, this remake manages this balance.
The new tells a simple story about a newcomer being bullied by kids from a local dojo who works hard to learn martial arts from an unexpected teacher: the maintenance man in his local apartment building. After a long period of training where the kid learns the true meaning of martial arts, he faces his bullies at a big tournament, where he earns their respect by facing them.
Anyone seeing the original will not be surprised by a single plot point in this remake, for it is fundamentally identical. How it differs in how the conflict is amplified by the combination of the altered setting (California to Beijing) and younger protagonist (who is 12, rather than 16). Seeing high school kids fighting in the original never seemed very believable, but seeing 12-year-olds fight is nothing new, even if they are engaging in brutal displays of kung-fu.
From the very beginning, this version makes Dre’s plight clear by having him be completely decimated by the rival kung-fu school. The bruises are larger, the hits are more painful and numerous, and there are few tears spared.
Dre’s rebellion is also amplified, with the natural rebellion of a 12-year-old culminating in this film’s riff on the “wax-on, wax-off” motif. While less convincing from a physical standpoint, this film’s take is more clearly integrated with the central theme of the movie, which is the learning of martial arts for personal betterment, not to fight others.
Of all the actors in the movie, Jackie Chan probably has the toughest act to follow, as Pat Morita was the highlight of the original. Like Morita, Chan is known as a comedian, which makes his bumbling ineptitude more believable, even through the inevitable fight where Chan’s Mr. Han reveals his kung-fu skills. Even if Chan is not as effective, he certainly does not drag the film down.
Is the movie fun? Yes. Did the preview crowd I watched it with break into uproarious applause as Dre bettered his opponents during the kung-fu tournament? Yes, yes, yes. Despite this version’s 140 minute running time, delivers best where it matters most.
It doesn’t hurt that Dre is much more convincing as a martial artist than you would expect, primarily through his ability to perform physical feats that cannot be easily faked.
My suggestion is that if you watch this film, be prepared to accept it for what it is: an underdog summer movie, not an impartial examination of one boy’s plight in a foreign land. Just roll with the narrative leaps, and enjoy it. There is far more to like than the cynical laughter of other summer action movies which shall remain nameless.