The Karate Kid
A winner once more: Chinese locales give this remake a boost
Let’s be honest: The original “Karate Kid’’ is not a great movie. Effective, yes; enshrined in the hearts of a zillion Gen-Xers as a filmic foundation myth, certainly. Say “wax on’’ to a group of late 30-somethings and watch them answer “wax off’’ in happy Pavlovian unison. If you’ve seen it lately, though, “Kid’’ shows its age, thanks to John Avildsen’s crude direction, the absurd overacting of everyone except the central duo of student and master, and rampant ’80s bad-hair syndrome. The movie works, but the notion of a remake is far from heresy.
In fact, the people behind the new “Karate Kid’’ have had the good sense to keep what works — that triumphant underdog story, retraced here to the scene and sometimes to the dialogue — while changing everything around it. Most crucially, the entire production has been airlifted to China, with the result that the audience feels its young hero’s fish-out-of-water dilemma far more sharply. The one thing that should have been changed but hasn’t is the title, which makes no sense at all in a movie about kung fu. But try telling that to the studio marketing department.
Leading the cast is Jaden Smith, the 11-year-old son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. We’ve seen him before — playing affectingly with his dad in “The Pursuit of Happyness’’ — but he carries this oversize production ably and almost solely on his small shoulders. I have no idea whether Smith 2.0 has the makings of an actor, but he conveys the hopes and fears of an actual kid, and that goes a long way toward grounding “Karate Kid’’ in a naturalism it needs.
His character, Dre Parker, has just moved from Detroit to Beijing — mom (Taraji P. Henson, easily outpacing Randee Heller from the 1984 version) has been relocated by her employer — and lands in this new world speaking barely a word of Mandarin. Lucky for him and the movie that most of the Chinese kids also speak English; unlucky that they include Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), a baby-faced bully who with his toadies shuts Dre down within minutes of his arrival. As in the first movie, that opening fight is a classic Charles Atlas sand-in-your-face humiliation, complete with appalled teen love interest (Wenwen Han) whimpering on the sidelines.
A few more kicks to the head, and Dre is a prime candidate for a kung fu makeover courtesy of his building’s super, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a reclusive loner with martial arts skills like, well, Jackie Chan’s. Except for one very funny donnybrook in an alley — Mr. Han defeats the bullies by beating them up with their own fists — Chan forgoes the high-velocity comedy he’s famous for and plays the character fairly straight. The wit is still there, of course, in workout sequences that have Dre repeatedly hanging his jacket up for what seems like several months. This “Karate Kid’’ shares with the original a belief in miracles that can transform a newbie to a black belt in a few well-edited training montages.
Director Harald Zwart has “The Pink Panther 2’’ to his credit, for which he will never, nor should ever, be forgiven, but he keeps this one moving smoothly, and he uses the Chinese locations well. There are a few too many tourist shots and one egregious sequence set atop the Great Wall, but mostly Dre and his dramas unfold in a living, breathing city. “The Karate Kid’’ has been made with a lot of overseas production money and it’s aimed with unusual frankness at a global audience, to the extent that the final credits are in both English and Chinese. (Interestingly, it’s also the rare Hollywood blockbuster with no white people in it, other than Luke Carberry as a briefly seen friend of Dre’s.)
Sticking closely to the original means the new “Kid’’ is an unnecessary 132 minutes long, and the final razzle-dazzle tournament scenes are stretched for maximum suspense. They’re more violent than before, too, while featuring characters several years younger than in the first film; there’s a brutality at the edges of the remake that the filmmakers don’t fully own up to.
On the other hand, why mess with a foolproof formula? At the end of “The Karate Kid,’’ the preview audience with whom I saw the film stood and cheered with the fervor of new converts. You could almost be forgiven for thinking it was 1984 all over again.