THE KARATE KID
- Directed by Harald Zwart
- Written by Christopher Murphey
- Starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan
Some kids have parents who take their kids to movies. Others have parents who buy them starring roles. The latter is the case with Jaden Smith, whose parents, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, helped produce this remake of the 1984 hit Karate Kid. The original was an amiable bit of hokum starring Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, and it launched several sequels in the next decade.
Smith plays Dre Parker, 12-year-old son of a widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson), who works in the car industry, moves him with her from Detroit to Beijing. No question, young Smith, who was 11 at the time this current film was shot, is a gorgeous kid, with his mother's delicate features and his dad's swagger. He is always watchable in this expensively designed vehicle, as he does his own stunts, dances, delivers quips and offers a convincing impression of a pocket-sized movie star.
Smith's charisma isn't always an asset to the movie though. Unlike the unknown Macchio in the original Kid, there's nothing vulnerable about Smith except for his diminutive size, which is its own problem. Whether the tiny star (he looks nine) is shown kissing a girl or being subjected to special effects-enhanced kicks that could cripple a pro athlete, the effect isn't so much dramatically gripping as ill-conceived. Who wants to see kids get hurt?
The smack-downs come early and often. Initially, Dre finds the obvious things about his family's relocation, like using chopsticks and the language, a challenge. Then things get worse. After he makes a play for a pretty violin player (Wenwen Han) in the playground, Dre finds himself the target of a bully, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), and his gang. They collectively study under a sadistic martial arts teacher who promotes a radical maim-first, bow-later method of kung fu.
Cheng and his posse bully the newcomer viciously until, during one of the attacks, Dre's reclusive apartment-building supervisor, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), intervenes. With a few twists of sleeves and body spins, Han manages to cause most of the gang members to knock themselves down. It's Chan's only fight scene in the film, and the only hint of his trademark slapstick fighting style, but again, it's uncomfortable watching him apply his human Mixmaster technique on the heads and bodies of adolescents.
Working against type, Chan plays a shuffling, depressive man, suffering from his own emotional wounds, and it's refreshing to see him underplay a part for a change. Drawn out of his shell by Dre's predicament, Mr. Han decides to help train him in his kind of kung fu, in preparation for a tournament in which Dre can face his tormentor one-on-one.
The movie sticks to the plot of the first Karate Kid, which was essentially director John G. Avildsen's Avidlsen's youth version of his previous hit, Rocky. The update's screenwriter Christopher Murphey and director Harald Zwart ( Agent Cody Banks) don't mess too much with the formula. Instead of the car waxing drill of the first film, Dre is ordered to pick up and drop his jacket innumerable times to practice his fight moves. Otherwise, the script follows the predictable path from humiliation to humility to a climactic showdown, complete with a deciding slow-motion kick.
The main difference in this newly globalized version of the film is inflation. The biggest Hollywood-Chinese co-production to date, The Karate Kid makes sure its Chinese state-run producers get their money's worth (the Chinese provided about one-eighth of the film's U.S. $40-million budget) with pretty scenic shots of the Great Wall and Forbidden City and a Taoist holy site at Wudang Mountain. The sanitized travelogue helps bloat the movie's running time to well over two hours, though that isn't exactly a flaw. Your kids can enjoy some culturally instructive scenery between the flying head kicks.