With Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan,Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Zhenwei Wang. Directed by Harald Zwart. Rated PG for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language. 132 minutes.
THE KARATE KID is a surprisingly entertaining remake of the 1984 hit. It keeps the formulaic plot, but makes a wide variety of changes so that it doesn’t feel like the fifth film in the series. (Did you forget 1994’s “The Next Karate Kid” with, believe it or not, Hilary Swank?)
This time, everything is different. Dre (Jaden Smith) and his mom (Taraji P. Henson) move from Detroit to Beijing, where 12-year-old Dre goes to a school with both American and Chinese kids. He takes a shine to aspiring violinist Meiying (Wenwen Han) but school bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) delivers a cruel beating. Dre thinks of taking up martial arts until he sees the local academy is where Cheng and his friends go, and where they are taught “No mercy!”
Coming to his rescue is the building maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who has a very unorthodox method of teaching. Eventually, the fatherless boy and the childless man bond, and there’s a big showdown at a martial arts tournament. You probably don’t need to have seen the original film to see where this is going, but don’t spoil it for the kids.
The locations in China are often breathtaking, even if you’ve seen other films that have had access to the Forbidden City. Of course, that means the title makes no sense since Mr. Han is Chinese and is teaching Dre kung fu, not Japanese karate. It won’t make much difference to audiences that can’t tell the difference between Tai Chi and Pad Thai, but it may be the most misleading movie title since “Krakatoa: East Of Java” (Krakatoa is actually west of Java).
As the two leads, Smith and Chan bring different things to the table. Young Smith may have some of the best genes in the business, with his father being Will Smith and his mother being Jada Pinkett Smith, but as he showed in “The Pursuit Of Happyness,” he’s no slouch in the acting department himself. As for Chan, the 56-year-old action star has always been a better actor than he’s been given credit for, and may have opened up a whole new chapter of his career her with an amusing and sometimes touching portrayal of a broken man coming back to life. He does get one glorious fight scene in which he manages to get a gang of bullies to beat each other up. Parents should be warned about the violence. When Dre is getting beaten, younger viewers may get upset. If so, make sure you stick around for the closing credits where we see the young actors all smiles, obviously having faked the animosity that seems so real on screen.
The Chinese location for the story turns out to be an advantage. Newcomers Zhenwei Wang, as the bully, and Wenwen Han, as the puppy love interest, are definite plusses. And a scene where young Dre attempts to make peace with Meiying’s father – in Chinese – is one of the highlights of the film.
This “Karate Kid” may not feature any karate and may be recycling a story that was already old when John Avildsen filched it for the original movie, but it is a solid summer entertainment that turns out to be a lot better than anyone was expecting. Who could have guessed?•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.