One thing Pat Morita brought to the original Karate Kid that the great martial arts clown Jackie Chan could never match – surprise. Mr. Miyagi, who teaches a bullied teen
how to defend himself in those films, could talk a good game. But like Yoda, you didn't believe he could pull off martial arts feats until he actually did – a rjaw-dropping moment in those films.
This Karate Kid follows an only child (Smith) and his mom ( Taraji P. Henson) from Detroit to Beijing. Mom's been transferred. Dre's resigned to this new world where he doesn't speak the language.
"Everything's OLD in China," he complains. "Buildings. People!"
But one thing that isn't is Meiying (Wenwen Han( , the fetching violinist Dre spies in the park. He makes his move—he is, after all, all of 12 years old – and another kid beats the snot out of him. As Dre tries to avoid more beatings, living in fear at school and on the way home each day, he eventually talks the building super into teaching him kung fu in time for the big tournament.
At two hours and 15 minutes, the new Karate Kid takes an absurd amount of time to get to that "big match." There's so much China to get in, as Mr. Han gives Dre lessons in a a mountaintop temple or on the Great Wall. And this story probably seemed an "epic" to director Harald Zwart. When your previous film was The Pink Panther 2, anything's going to seem epic.
The training sequences are familiar yet rendered with verve with the occasional surprise. Henson manages a few chuckles as a nagging mom, and young Smith reveals a hint of his bloodlines (he is Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith's kid) in some of the lighter moments – taking on an aged Chinese ping pong player – "You know I have no problem beating old people!"
A hint of culture clash – Chinese locals keep wanting to touch the African American hair. But despite the presence of Chinese kung fu bullies, the film seems sanitized for China's protection.
But there are worthwhile life lessons about respect and discipline and resolve – "Life can knock us down," Mr. Han says. "But we can choose whether or not to get back up."
It's not an improvement over the equally violent original. But The Karate Kid is a slick, polished re-boot and re-setting of a fondly-remembered film franchise of the past, And if Jackie Chan can't surprise us, at least he's around to explain how "karate" isn't the same thing as "kung fu."
See for Yourself
The Karate Kid
Two stars out of four, and
Cast: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson
Director: Harald Zwart
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Industry rating: PG for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language.
New Karate Kid has new digs, new chops
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