(by Dustin Putman
A decidedly faithful remake of the hit 1984 original, "The Karate Kid" respectfully—and surprisingly—holds its own. There are minor differences (the teen characters have been lowered to preteens and the setting has been changed from California to Beijing), but the heart, earnestness, and most of the same plot beats remain intact. Also the same: its formulaic underdog story and overwhelming predictability. Just about everything that happens can be correctly guessed by the viewer right from the start. What director Harald Zwart (2009's "The Pink Panther 2") and writer Christopher Murphy reaffirm, however, is that it is okay to follow conventions as long as it is done with a modicum of stamina and smarts. What can't quite be discerned is why "The Karate Kid" is called that at all; the sole time someone uses the word, "karate," he is set straight that the art he is learning is, in fact, "kung-fu." Article continues below
When widowed mother Sherry's (Taraji P. Henson) job transfers her from Detroit to Beijing, 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is none too happy about the move. Feeling out of place and faced with a culture far different than the one he has known, Dre's troubles are magnified by the appearance of tough bully Cheng (Wang Zhenweig). Dre makes the mistake of fighting him when he chooses to pick on sweet, violin-playing classmate Meiying (Han Wenwen), instantly becoming Cheng's new target. Frightened and feeling ill-equipped to face his wrath day after day, Dre ultimately seeks the help of his apartment building's maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). A lonely guy hiding a forlorn past, Mr. Han is at first reluctant, but then agrees, to teach him the skills and discipline of kung-fu in anticipation for an upcoming tournament that will pit Dre again Cheng. Out of this, Dre not only becomes more confident in his own shoes, but forms a close unlikely friendship with his new teacher.
Using the title, "The Karate Kid," is a shameless cash-in considering the film has nothing to do with karate, but no matter. The film works for what it is: a crowd-pleasing family film that goes light on cornball elements while at the same time leaving the viewer completely emotionally invested in the characters. Dre is an effective protagonist—a kid struggling to fit in and overwhelmed by his foreign surroundings and new life—and one to root for. When he breaks down to his mom over wanting to go home, and she tells him where they are now is home, his tears feel real and so does his sense of misplacement. In addition, even as the plot travels down overly familiar avenues, each of the central relationships—between Dre and Mr. Han, Dre and his mother, Dre and Meiying—are naturalistic and adept. The final kung-fu championship face-off is, indeed, a foregone conclusion, but still absorbing as far as those sort of endings go. One questions the ruthless brutality of Cheng and the seeming message that fighting is okay, but director Harald Zwart fortunately emphasizes the internal ethics kung-fu teaches its students over the physical or violent.
As the clichés stack up—yes, there is even a brief falling-out between Dre and love interest Meiying when her father forbids her from hanging out with him anymore—the viewer is reassured that at least these conventional elements are being handled in a slice-of-life fashion rather than with a heavy hand. Taking full advantage of the on-location shooting in China, the picture also has a palpable visual sense, with exquisite-looking scenes taking place in the Forbidden City, around ancient temples high up in the mountains, and atop the Great Wall. One thing that the film does not have is good timing; at an epic-length 140 minutes, the movie could have easily been cut by forty minutes or so. When nearly a half-hour is almost solely dedicated to Mr. Han's "jacket on, jacket off" teachings (clearly a reference and a spin on the original's "wax on, wax off" moment), it is quite obvious that some of the fat of the narrative is in desperate need of trimming.
It is easy to be skeptical of Jaden Smith as an actor, if for no reason than because he is the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith (both whom produce here) and faint auras of nepotism are in the air. Still, one must give credit where it is due, and the younger Smith, just as he did in his debut picture, 2006's "The Pursuit of Happyness," hardly hits an inauthentic chord in the whole of his performance. As Mr. Han, Jackie Chan (2010's "The Spy Next Door") delivers what might be his most impressive screen turn to date; it's certainly his most dramatic, and he pulls off his more highly-charged moments with simplicity, grace and poignance. Taraji P. Henson (2009's "Not Easily Broken") has less to do as Dre's mom Sherry—there are no scenes dedicated to developing her outside of her parental bond with Dre—but what she has to do she does terrifically, lifting the part above the thankless. And, as Meiying, newcomer Han Wenwen is absolutely charming, even if the suspicion is there that she doesn't quite have a firm grasp of English. This works for the character, though, since she's a native of China and English is intended to be her second language.
If the rapturous, nearly concert-like applause at the advanced screening I attended is any indication, "The Karate Kid" is destined to be the sleeper hit of the year. Mainstream audiences will eat it up and not care that they've seen the same story played out a hundred times before. After all, if originality reigned supreme in Hollywood, there wouldn't be an unnecessary remake like this one getting released to theaters every week. Nevertheless, as far as needless reduxes go, this one's pretty good, if not capturing the quality of its predecessor then at least coming close enough to impress.