The biggest cinematic sin committed here is the misnamed title (keeping karate instead of using the correct kung fu), but Jaden Smith has no need to wait for stardom as Will Smith’s heir apparent.
Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his mom Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) move from Detroit, Michigan to Beijing, China for her career. With his life and friends far behind, it isn’t long before Dre is embarrassing himself trying to impress a local girl named Meiying (Wenwen Han.) Unfortunately, his antics also draw the attention of the local bully and his friends who promptly thrash Dre using some kind of martial arts. When an unassuming maintenance man named Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) runs off the bullies and saves Dre from another beating, it instills Dre with a sense of hope, but he soon learns that kung fu isn’t merely combat but also about living one’s life and respecting others.
This 2010 reboot roughly combines the plot elements of the first two original films while also transitioning from Japanese karate to Chinese kung fu. No offense to the original cast, but having Jackie Chan as the kung fu master already elevated this film into a higher category. Add that to Will Smith’s son Jaden stepping up to convincingly make the transition from neophyte to confident combatant and the rest of the film writes itself. You already know what’s going to happen and how it will end, but it’s worth watching Jaden and Jackie interact through both training and bonding. The emotion feels genuine here, and it’s a film the entire family can go see and enjoy.
One might suspect a bit of political posturing present in the film, especially the not-so subtle references of seeing everything closed and shut down in Detroit. In stark contrast to run down buildings and foreclosure signs are the 2008 Olympic Stadium in Beijing, the aptly-named Forbidden City, and of course the Great Wall, all features of China. Is there a message here about how well China’s economy is faring while industrial cities like Detroit have fallen into ruin? Of course these are beautiful places and such, but it just seems that only Jaden Smith’s character is unaware of the beauty and wonder of China all around him, and to be both successful and accepted, he must embrace it to do so. Mr. Chan even gets in an eco-punch with a green reminder to only turn on the hot water long enough for showers and save the planet.
All of that aside, watching Jaden is like watching a miniature Will Smith; you can see it in his mannerisms. Whether its “the style” or not, however, it’s a bit harder to take Jaden seriously sporting a head full of girly braids (before he spoke in the first trailer, tell me you weren’t thinking “Who’s that little girl?”) By the end of the film, however, you’ll believe the younger Mr. Smith has earned the right to attend the tournament and will be cheering along with everyone else as he takes back his power. Waxing on and off may have worked for karate, but Chan’s kung fu gives “hanging up your jacket” a whole new meaning.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)