By Matt Brunson
THE KARATE KID
DIRECTED BY Harald Zwart
STARS Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan
"I'm bored. Will you and Mom produce a movie that I can star in?"
"Of course! Let's do a remake, so we don't have to spend too much time looking for original scripts. The 1980s are popular right now. What would you like to star in?"
"Well, let's see. I love The Terminator, Beverly Hills Cop and The Karate Kid."
"OK. You're too young for The Terminator, and I don't want you cussing like a sailor like Eddie Murphy did. So how about The Karate Kid?"
"Cool! Thanks, Dad!"
If your parents are Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, you're probably going to get what you want, no matter how ill-advised. And certainly, mounting a remake of one of the 80s' definitive crowd-pleasers, a movie that led to major box office, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Pat Morita and (alas) three inferior sequels, probably constitutes some sort of career death wish. Yet The Karate Kid turns out to be a pleasant enough surprise. To be sure, there's absolutely no area in which it improves on the original, yet the basic plot remains durable enough that there's no harm done by this easy-to-take update.
Jaden Smith plays Dre Parker, who's forced to move from his Detroit home when his single mom (Taraji P. Henson) lands a job in Beijing. Dre catches the eye of a cute schoolmate (Han Wenwen), but most of the time, he's being beaten to a pulp by a local bully (Wang Zhenwei) and his sycophants, a situation that leads Dre to despise his new surroundings. But just as he resigns himself to a childhood full of bruised ribs and black eyes, he learns that his building's maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), is actually a kung fu expert. Realizing that the boy needs to protect himself, Mr. Han sets about training his young charge.
This Karate Kid clocks in at 135 minutes, which seems absurd until one recalls that the original itself runs a lengthy 126 minutes. But that version, expertly directed by Rocky helmer John G. Avildsen, flies by; this new take, overseen by The Pink Panther 2's Harald Zwart, proceeds in fits and starts. Even the climactic championship bout, an edge-of-the-seat affair in the '84 model, here gets by more on the intrinsic dynamics of the situation (i.e. the one-on-one, last man standing angle) than on Zwart's rather pedestrian orchestration of the segment.
As Mr. Han, the likable Chan is in fine form, though his performance isn't nearly as delightfully subversive as Morita's turn in the comparable role of Mr. Miyagi. As for Jaden Smith, he shows some limited range, though he's still a long way from displaying the natural charisma of Will Smith or even original Karate Kid Ralph Macchio.
And no, there's no truth to the rumor that Will and Jada plan to next cast Jaden in a remake of Citizen Kane.