The kid may have moved from Detroit to Beijing this time, and he may actually be learning kung fu instead of proper karate, but have no fear: The Karate Kid is a beat-for-beat remake of the 1984 underdog story and almost as effective a crowd-pleaser.
Director Harald Zwart gets off to a swift start by introducing us to an emptied room and a timeline on the doorframe, the last two updates of which read 'Daddy diedâ?� and 'Moved to China.â?� And we're off, as 12-year-old Dre (Jaden Smith, son of producer Will Smith) and single mom Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) follow her job as it takes them overseas. It turns out he's not the only transplant on the block, but none of his peers has his back once he becomes the target of choice for local bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) and his gang. Enter soft-spoken maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who intervenes and gets Cheng's steely-eyed martial arts instructor to agree to a proper tournament rematch. Cue training montage!
Make that 'montages,â?� because as everything newer must be bigger, this Karate Kid proves longer in length (135 minutes or so) and wider in scope (who trains at the beach when you have the Great Wall of China?). The fights pack a harder punch, with stunt and sound work suggesting that these pre-teens could take down their older '80s counterparts. Just as Ralph Macchio was bullied for his crush on Elisabeth Shue, it's Dre's flirtation with schoolmate Mei Ying (Wenwen Han) that gets him into all sorts of trouble.
In their scenes together, you can see Jaden doing his best Big Willy imitation, trying to emulate daddy's boundless swagger, and it's these moments that confirm that The Karate Kid is as much about training a warrior as it is about grooming a star. Jaden's future in Hollywood isn't necessarily set in stone by his work here, but he certainly makes a much better impression than he left in his last remake, 2008's The Day The Earth Stood Still.
And just as Mr. Han is there to pick him back up and slyly teach him manners and discipline, Chan quietly lifts the movie out of its early culture-clash rut. He has one big fight scene that's more convincing and exciting than anything he's done in years, and then he delivers on the same kind of big emotional moment that earned predecessor Pat Morita an Oscar nomination. I'm skeptical that it'll do the same here, but the action star's low-key appeal works wonders throughout and helps him put his own definitive stamp on such an iconic role.
The rest of the proceedings are as corny and charming as expected. As far as catchphrases go, 'Jacket offâ?� earned as many unfortunate giggles at our screening as I'm sure 'wax offâ?� must have elicited back in the day. The soundtrack favors hip-hop songs over James Horner's sweeping score; as for Justin Bieber's closing-credits contribution, well, he is no Joe Esposito.
Even as The Karate Kid ends with an expectedly updated, almost unbelievable finishing move, at least it earned its climactic kick by emphasizing emotion over effects. If this is the one summer film that convinces some child in the audience to realize his or her own potential instead of holding out for some magical prophecy, then maybe that makes it the best around.