Finishing Kick

Enough already with your cynical assumptions. Sometimes a remake is even better than the original.

A guy walks in to a movie theater, pen and pad in hand, claws sharpened, ready to eviscerate another unnecessary remake — this one of a beloved film that pulled in $100 million at the box office a quarter of a century ago.

The original was pretty good, he thought as he sat down. What the hell is the point of doing it over all these years later? He was starting to get angry at Hollywood’s inability to create anything new anymore.

The movie played, the packed house went bonkers — even cheering out loud at key points. (Who cheers at movies anymore?). The guy got caught up in the film and the audience and the electricity in the room. His claws retracted, the way Wolverine’s do after a fight. The movie ended. On the way out, the guy was thinking, “Damn! This thing’s gonna be a hit, one of the biggest movies of the year. I wish I could’ve invested in it.”

Then he — OK, then I — turned to my critic colleagues, and we were all going, “What happened in there? How could this movie have been so good?” There are many reasons. Among them: It’s near-perfect for practically all ages. It’s wise and gritty and entertaining enough for adult audiences, and it’s welcoming and fun and full of easy-to-take advice for young viewers.

Jerry Weintraub, who produced both films, made sure to keep this one true to the spirit of the original and to give it a fresh feel. Even die-hard fans of the first one are going to have trouble finding many complaints this time around. The plotting remains very close, although the setting has changed radically. When Ralph Macchio had the title role, his Daniel moved from the East Coast to the West Coast when his single mom got a new job. Now young Dre (Jaden Smith) must go with his mom from Detroit to Beijing, where he has no friends, quickly makes some nasty, karate-savvy enemies, and soon comes under the martial arts tutelage of his apartment building’s seemingly antisocial handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan).

Of course, the real kick of the story is that Mr. Han is actually giving the unruly lad some life lessons, not simply punching and kicking and ducking lessons. Though he doesn’t know it, the boy is learning that “it’s not about fighting, it’s about making peace with your enemy,” or something like that.

But be warned: The original film was quite violent for its day, with Macchio regularly getting the tar beaten out of him. The remake ups the ante in presenting the viciousness of the villainous young Chen (Zhenwei Wang) during his street attacks on Dre — and of the sport in general once the fights are taken to the tournament level.

But at its heart, the film is inspirational without being preachy. It runs a little long, containing an intrusive pop music-laden montage and some unneeded backstory heaviosity about Mr. Han. But it’s also quite funny, featuring some startling moments of visual splendor — a Kung Fu academy filled with hordes of students in bright red uniforms spread over immense green lawns, along with a hauntingly beautiful mountain-top retreat.

Can 12-year-old Jaden Smith sustain a film?

Let’s leave it at this: He comes across as a real 12-year-old kid, and that’s more than half the battle. The better news is that Jackie Chan does no mugging; he acts.

The best news is that this is a true crowd-pleaser. And it comes with a life lesson for us all: Don’t walk into a movie with a bad attitude, because you really never know what you’re going to get.

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