This had all the earmarks of a movie I didn’t want to see. First, it’s about martial arts and I’ve only seen one martial arts movie I liked, 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Second, it’s got Jackie Chan as a star and, although I like him, I can’t remember seeing him in a good movie, and I’ve seen a lot of his films. Third, it’s almost 2 ½ hours long. No movie should be 2 ½ hours long, especially a martial arts movie. So when I say this is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen this year, you can take it to the bank.
The plot is simple. Dre (Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s son) is taken to China by his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson, who gave such a spectacular performance in 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Alone in a foreign country, he gets picked on by a bully, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), and falls for a Chinese girl, Meiying (Wenwen Han), who has a prize-winning smile. Even though he knows some karate, he is unable to defend himself after getting beat up, because Cheng and his friends are top students of kung fu, a Chinese martial art. Coming to his rescue is a maintenance man, Mr. Han (Chan), who agrees to train him for the ultimate showdown.
Seems like a pretty simple story that could be easily told in 90 minutes, but director Harald Zwart has taken a good script (Christopher Murphey, with a story credit to Robert Mark Kamen) and woven in gorgeous location shots of China, so the story rarely drags.
The movie is filled with terrific performances, starting with Smith, who trained in kung fu and is shown accomplishing some amazing poses that require extraordinary flexibility. Chan generally gives good performance and here he has good material with which to work. Henson’s role doesn’t require much, but she gives what it needs.
Finally, what really sets this movie apart and makes it something special are the performances of Han and Wang as Dre’s romantic interest and rival, respectively.
Han has a gorgeous smile in the same league as Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey. But she can act, too. Wang has a cocky look but evil surrounds him every time he appears onscreen. Without his menacing performance, this movie would be much less than it is.
The main criticism I have of the film is the way the audio exaggerates the violence. Whenever Cheng strikes Dre, it sounds like a rifle shot. This is what Hollywood does with boxing and football movies. It makes the sounds so unrealistically enormous that it exacerbates the violence. Anyone struck with such violence to create this type of noise couldn’t survive to continue the conflict. Making the sounds of the fighting more realistic and less frenetic would enhance its credibility.
But that’s a minor point. This is a terrific entertainment.