REVIEW: Jackie Chan, Karate Kid Offer Hit-Or-Miss Summer Treat
For those weaned on the original, watching The Karate Kid's franchise reboot is a little like running into your old crush at a middle-school reunion: Warmly familiar and yet altered enough to warrant a second look, the raw material's all there, it's just been moved around a bit. OK, more than a bit: The Sex and the City ladies follow the money to Abu Dhabi; the Karate kid and his widowed mom follow the jobs -- to China. This necessitates one of the film's most conspicuous and yet least noted swap-outs: In China one practices kung fu, but karate is Japanese, as was the original film's instructor, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). And yet the title remains, asserting allegiance to brand over narrative logic. It's all the same crap anyway, right?
Well, no. There is also the question of whether young Jaden Smith (son of executive producer Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who speak proudly about launching a family franchise of performers) is ready for the role that arguably both made and ended Ralph Macchio's career. As 12-year-old Dre, Jaden is barely filling out the 11 years he had on the docket at the time of filming. Which is not to say he isn't every bit as adorable as he was as a homeless waif in The Pursuit of Happyness; indeed, the tweens will go wild for his cornrows, smart mouth and almond eyes. But as a contender -- even an underdog -- Smith is too puny to trigger anything other than alarm when he's in danger. Anyone who can accept, as part of an evening's entertainment, an 80-pounder's getting the snot repeatedly kicked out of him by a gang of Chinese toughs has a stronger -- and stonier -- stomach than I.
Dre is new to Beijing and not happy about it, but the theme of his displacement (and to a lesser extent that of his mother, played by Taraji P. Henson) is soon subsumed by the mighty-underdog arc: The Chinese are the Russians of the young millennium, and we need to watch them go down. Bullied by a group of really scary schoolmates (led by a thug played by Zhenwei Wang) for flirting with a new maybe-girlfriend (an irresistibly fluttery, sincere Wenwen Han), he finds himself chased to his doorstep, where his gloomy building manager Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) intervenes with some sick martial moves.
Having failed to broker peace between Dre and the bullies (all of them kung fu devotees who train under a radical guru whose un-zen motto is "No weakness! No pain! No mercy!"), Mr. Han agrees to train Dre in the way of the true kung fu, not the school's ultimate fighting hooey, so that the score might be settled during an open tournament. In one of director Harald Zwart's several cute nods to the original that almost work, instead of waxing on and off ad nauseum, the careless Dre spends his first few private lessons picking his sweater up off the floor and hanging it -- with a smile, please -- on a hook. Discipline and respect are lesson one; learning to accept that you can only control yourself and your response to the actions of others takes a little longer.
The lessons are filled with parent-friendly aphorisms uttered in the parlance of ancient Chinese wisdom ("You think with your eyes, so you are easy to fool"). The training sequences are fine, if at times a little perfunctory; partially this is a result of Smith acquitting himself -- rather than behaving, or even acting -- in every moment. Chan is surprisingly affecting as the enigmatic instructor, underplaying the role without making a production of his subtlety. Two of the most successful sequences owe much of their charm to the spectacular, respective backdrops of the Chinese countryside and a Beijing arcade. Hiding out in the latter with his very sweet crush, Smith goes a little slack-jawed when the violin prodigy (naturally -- I'm sure she owns at math and gymnastics too) busts a couple of fresh moves while playing a version of "Dance Dance Revolution." The camera lingers on Dre's look of awe and apprehension -- it's the kind of light but meaningful moment that the best family films deploy with winning consistency; here it is a relatively rare treat.
For all of Dre's arduous training (and at a porky two and a half hours, the film could have used a few more laps around the editing bay), the tournament, when it comes, is a bit of a letdown. Not in energy or anticipation -- there is plenty of both -- but we get only a flashing sense of the skills our little grasshopper spent so much time developing. The fights themselves (once Dre, who still has the good sense to be scared, agrees to stay on the mat) get the MTV treatment; the action is cut up to the point of incoherence. Dre's clutch move, when it comes, is a doozy, and sets off the appointed bells of resonance, recognition, and all being set right in the world of ass-whupping. If only the director had learned Mr. Han's most important lesson: Being still and doing nothing are two very different things.