This old plot has new punch
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, June 11, 2010
Between "The A-Team" and "The Karate Kid," it must be "We Love the '80s!" week at the multiplex. But if you rolled your eyes when you heard about the remake of the 1984 hit that starred Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, get ready for a surprise. The new "Karate Kid" brings fresh life and perspective to the classic tale of perseverance and cross-generational friendship, thanks to Harald Zwart's sensitive direction and two exceptionally appealing stars.
Speaking of eye-rollers, not a few cynics grumbled when they heard that Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith were bankrolling "The Karate Kid" as a vehicle for their son, Jaden. But the serenely self-possessed 11-year-old, while at times uncannily resembling his father, manages to carve out a screen persona all his own. As Dre Parker, who with his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson), has just moved to Beijing from Detroit, he brings a soulful, searching sense of vulnerability to a kid who comes under attack from bullies on his first day in town. After a particularly brutal beat-down, Dre is defended by his apartment house caretaker, a quiet introvert named Mr. Han (Jackie Chan).
When Han -- who turns out to be a kung fu master -- goes up against the crumbums who have been terrorizing Dre, he does so largely with defensive moves that wind up literally tying the belligerents into knots. Thus does "The Karate Kid" honor the ancient Hollywood art of serving up bone-crushing violence with enlightenment on the side: Though the filmmakers invite viewers to wince and cheer during the film's increasingly painful fight scenes, they make sure to soften the blows with wise tutorials in self-discipline, respect and balance.
Zwart makes the most of the verdant, misty locations in China where "The Karate Kid" was filmed, including the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. The result is a handsome movie that delivers playful nods to its predecessor. Like Morita's original character, Mr. Han tries to catch a fly with his chopsticks but isn't above using a swatter; later, he drills Dre in hanging up his jacket in a sequence based on the famous "wax on, wax off" scenes in the 1984 film. Still, this version looks and feels surprisingly new.
Wisely, Chan underplays his natural warmth for a character whose terseness and eccentric behavior are explained in one of the movie's rare sagging moments. But the real revelation is Smith, who made his screen debut with his father in "The Pursuit of Happyness" and here proves that he's no mere beneficiary of dynastic largesse. Somber, self-contained and somehow believable as a kid for whom things don't come easily, he never conveys the sense that he's desperate to be liked. Which is precisely why "The Karate Kid" winds up being so likable itself.
Contains bullying, martial-arts action violence and some mild profanity.