In 1984, “The Karate Kid” was about a New Jersey kid moving to California and being beset by bullies until a kindly Japanese man trained him in karate. In the 2010 version we have a Detroit kid sent off to China, but bullying is clearly an international language. All jokes aside about how everything today is made in China, this is a surprisingly worthy remake.
In actuality this is “The Kung Fu Kid,” which was the original working title, but then that defeats the purpose of the film's existence in the first place: name association. Right now, Hollywood is all about the idea of pre-awareness. “The Karate Kid” is a fondly remembered film with a built-in audience. If today's kids haven't seen the original, their parents certainly have.
The other raison d'être for this film is to be a vehicle for Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who are both producers on the film. His casting is a blatant example of nepotism and the film was tailor made for him.
With the cynical rant out of the way, it can be said that the film is engaging in spite of or perhaps because of its well-worn formula. There are qualifiers to this recommendation, though.
Smith is slightly above adequate as the lead. He isn't bad, but he isn't great either. He has a definite screen presence, and the physical abilities he achieves are quite impressive. The martial arts on display in this film are far more advanced than anything in the original.
There is a chemistry between Smith and Jackie Chan as his mentor and Smith has some cute romantic scenes with Wenwen Han. He is best when he relaxes and has someone to play off of, but too often he plays everything with a dead-pan seriousness.
In early scenes he comes off as too whiny and not particularly likeable, which was also true of his work in the remake of “The Day Earth Stood Still.” He is improving as an actor, though, and doesn't sink the film by any means.
With a running time of two hours and 20 minutes, the film is a bit too long. Most of the padding comes for showcasing China,
which brings us to the third reason the film exists: to be a PR piece for modern China. But the Chinese setting is also one of the film's saving graces. It helps justify remaking the original by giving the film a new flavor. Plus the locations are beautiful shot by cinematographer Roger Pratt.
What ultimately makes this film work is the fantastic performance by Chan as Mr. Han. Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi was the heart of the original film and he brought a real sense of wisdom, humor and warmth to a character that could have been merely caricature. Chan also provides these qualities to the new film.
This is Chan's best performance in an English language film. In the start of his career he played things broad and comedic and created a style of film fighting all his own. Now in his 50s, Chan has had to mellow slightly, and here he shows a more serious side. This is perhaps his most nuanced and even soulful work on film. He may even make you cry during the drunken scene where, like with Mr. Miyagi in the original, we learn why he pulled away from society.
Taraji P. Henson, so wonderful as the mother in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” once again takes on the role of mom, but here the job is much more thankless. It is to Henson's credit as an actor that she brings at least some substance and wit to an underwritten role.
The film inevitably ends with a kung-fu tournament, in which Smith's Dre fights his tormentors and seeks respect and balance in life. Although the conclusion is foregone and follows the same rhymes of it predecessor, right down to the final fight, the tournament sequence still excites.
When a formula is done well, you almost can't help but get sucked in. As much as you may try resist it, this new “Karate Kid” will get its hooks in you.