'The Karate Kid'
'The Karate Kid'
The film was shot on location in China. In its 1984 inspiration, the new world greeting our boy hero was Southern California, and that was exotic enough. Ralph Macchio (then in his early 20s) starred as a New Jersey teenager relocated with his mother to a strange, blond land, where he was instantly beset by sociopathic karate thugs straight out of Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia." Noriyuki "Pat" Morita played his mentor, prepping him for the All-Valley karate championship and his fight for self-respect.
The movie was a hit, pushing the same buttons that director John G. Avildsen had pushed with "Rocky." It spawned three sequels and now director Harald Zwart's remake. This version sends mother and son to China because, as the fine and avid-eyed Taraji P. Henson says early on, "There's nothing left for us in Detroit!" and a single parent must go where the work takes her.
The material has been reworked to showcase Jaden Smith, who was 11 during filming. He kicks a lot higher than Macchio ever did, though watching a preteen subjected to two-plus hours of ritual humiliation and punishment offers a different, more sobering emotional experience than a young adult playing a high schooler. On the other hand: Smith, son of producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, is such a cool, unflappably stoic young performer, one's queasiness is more theoretical than actual.
Jackie Chan co-stars in Morita's old role of the humble maintenance man who coaches the Bullied One. The older Chan gets, the simpler and truer he becomes as a performer. Screenwriter Christopher Murphey is a devoted student of the original, right down to the drunken confession of a painful personal loss delivered by the surrogate father figure. Chan pulls this scene off, in what may be the most openly emotional scene of his film career. Then it's back to training montages and storytelling basics, designed to mold Smith's Dre into a worthy adversary for the kung fu punks led by Wang Zhenwei's malignant Cheng.
There's a love interest for Dre, a violin prodigy (Han Wenwen) fascinated with Dre's hair and obvious Hollywood-royalty cred. She is there, rooting for him, at the final showdown, just as Elisabeth Shue was back in the day. The title of the redux is a stretch, since Dre is the kung fu kid, not karate. Little matter. "Fight hard, earn respect, boys leave you alone," Chan's character advises, practicing his screenplay pitch.
I doubt even Smith and Chan believe their film needed to be 140 minutes long, but the leisurely running time allows, at least, for a little variety in the pacing and a day-tripper's exploration of Beijing and surrounding locales.