This is more of an update than a remake of the iconic 1984 original which paired young Ralph Macchio with Pat Morita. While the concept is the same, the locale has moved from California to the Far East.
After his dad dies, 12 year-old Dre Parker’s (Jaden Smith) widowed mom (Taraji P. Henson) makes a career move from Detroit to Beijing, so Dre suddenly finds himself in China, where the language, customs and chopsticks are unfamiliar. While he makes one friend, violin-playing Mei Ying, he also makes an enemy, Cheng, the class bully. During their first scuffle, Dre tries to use a little karate but, in this land of kung fu fighting, sadistic Cheng and his Flying Dragon buddies beat him up and continue to terrorize him after school with alarming regularity until a maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), comes to his rescue. A wushu master, Mr. Han is disgusted with the aggressiveness taught at a local academy, noting: “Kung Fu is for knowledge, for helping people, for peace…No bad students, just bad teachers.” So he patiently trains Dre in the ancient art, preparing him to compete against Cheng in a sanctioned tournament.
Building on Robert Mark Kamen’s familiar story, screenwriter Christopher Murphey and director Harald Zwart (“Agent Cody Banks”) expand the lonely, fatherless son/childless mentor theme, evoking familiar training moments as the repetitive car-waxing sequence becomes “jacket on, jacket off.”
Jackie Chan is renowned for his martial arts expertise and, after training with Chan’s stunt coordinator, Wu Gang, Jaden Smith’s athletic prowess is convincing, augmented by his inherent charm and inherited acting ability. (His mom is Jada Pinkett Smith and his dad is Will Smith, with whom Jaden starred in “The Pursuit of Happyness.”)
While Roger Pratt’s cinematography is stunning, two-and-a-half hours of sight-seeing in the Forbidden City, the Wudang Mountains and the Great Wall is far too long for family fare. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Karate Kid” is a wise, poignant, satisfying 7, delivering a timeless message across the generations and decades.