The offspring of Will Smith defends himself against Chinese bullies (in actual China — take that, Ralph Macchio, with your trouble adjusting to Los Angeles) in The Karate Kid, a movie that is actually about kung fu, but why quibble over specifics.
Karate — Okinawa. Kung fu — China. At least that’s what the Internet says. And while Macchio’s Kid moved from New Jersey to California and learned to wax on, wax off from Pat Morita, playing the Okinawa native Mr. Miyagi, Jaden Smith’s Kid is a son of Detroit moving to Beijing and learning from the Beijing resident Mr. Han, played by Jackie Chan. So, really, this is The Kung Fu Kid we’ve got here (as it is apparently called in China and Japan). But this is one of the few movies worth its $10 ticket price this summer, so why get all tangled up in martial arts specificity?
Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is all mopeyness and preteen eyerollitude about moving with his mom, Sherry (Taraji P. Hensen), to Beijing, where she will work for a car company and he will attend some sort of international school with other American kids as well as Chinese kids and will occasionally have to wear a uniform. With nascent bits of that Will Smith charm, Dre makes an acquaintance of the neighbor and gets a serious-looking girl in the park to giggle at him. But it turns out that that girl, Mei Ying (Wen Wen Han), already has an admirer in Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), a boy who has some serious kung fu chops, as Dre learns when Cheng’s fist meets his face.
After some 24 hours in Beijing, 12-year-old Dre already has an enemy, a love interest and, once he meets the building superintendent Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a potential mentor. The kid knows how to fit a lot in his day.
The bullying by Cheng and his gang continues with Dre mostly getting the worst end of it until he’s getting the stuffing kicked out of him in an alleyway and Mr. Han shows up to shoo the boys away using some bad-ass kung fu of his own.
Teach me, teach me, says Dre. Han demurs at first. But when a visit to the kung fu school reveals the boys’ teacher Master Li (Yu Rongguang) to be a bit of a shmuck and unwilling to call his little demons off Dre without a final beatdown, Mr. Han agrees to enter Dre in an upcoming kung fu tournament and help him train. No cars to wax this time — Dre learns patience, persistence and arm motions by taking on and off his jacket.
Now I love that Bananarama song as much as any other good Gen-Xer, but, and I’d have to rewatch the 1984 The Karate Kid to be sure, this movie might actually be better. For starters, we are spared the ridiculousness of William Zabka’s Johnny and his cliché-of-’80s-boneheadedness sensei played by Martin Kove. It makes more sense for 12-year-olds to be in the thrall of some bloodthirsty martial arts teacher than it does for a 16-year-old or however old the Elisabeth-Shue-dating Johnny was supposed to be. Everything about the way this movie unfolds makes more sense for it to happen to younger kids, those at the beginning of the crazy rollercoaster of adolescence, than to high school students. And — as I’m sure many a studio marketer pointed out — makes it more of a family flick than a movie just for teens.
And Smith is talented enough to pull off the mix of sitcom-y likeability and occasional bursts of actual actory pathos that are required in a movie that teaches you to work hard and show respect but also features some mild goofy jokes and elementary-school-style mom-focused sassback. He might be straining a bit too hard to use his dad’s mannerisms and that might get tiresome if he leans on it too long in his young career, but for now he’s doing just fine. And he has a strong partner for his likeability journey in Jackie Chan — a guy who can make sitting through the most thinly constructed nonsense comedy still marginally enjoyable. Chan is at his late-Jackie-Chan-era best here — still quite nimble and fun to watch when he does his kung fu stunts but willing to make a joke about getting winded from a fight. The big emotional scene between Dre and Han, when Han explains his personal sadness and Dre, still nursing his own Big Sad, helps him to move forward, is not going to win anyone any Oscars, but it gets the movie where it needs to go just fine.
This The Karate Kid might be a bigger deal in terms of marketing and spectacle than the original, but it does a good job of keeping a plucky feel. It gives you a neat little look at China, a fun little story about a little engine that could and some thoroughly watchable actors improving on, not just riffing on, the characters that came before. Grading on a curve, I would say this is the first movie out since “summer” started in May that you could take your whole family to and completely enjoy. But even if things improve, even months from now when this movie is one of a world of movies you can choose to watch, The Karate Kid will still be worth your time and deserving of a solid B
Rated PG for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language. Directed by Harald Zwart and written by Christopher Murphey (from a story by Robert Mark Kamen), The Karate Kid is two hours and six minutes long and distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures.