Opens Fri., June 11
“It’s not karate, it’s kung fu,” shouts the titular Karate Kid. This blip aside, this unasked-for remake of an ‘80s nostalgia item is an improbable improvement in just about every way. Created by Rocky director John G. Avildsen, the original was an attempt to revisit past success while plundering the squeaky-clean high-school market newly created by John Hughes, laced with some Reagan-era ethnic stereotyping.
There’s a healthy air of disrespect for source material in the remake, relocating to China—where an Oriental Other caricature like Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi would seem odd—and reducing the age of the protagonist. And this tale of bullies and sexless love really does make more sense with a 12-year-old instead of a high school senior.
Otherwise, the remake is plot-faithful: Dre (Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada) moves from Detroit to Beijing with his widowed mom (Taraji P. Henson, doing loads with a thankless role). There, he incurs the wrath of a ruthless little shit learning a dick version of martial arts. To the rescue comes aphorism-spouting handyman and secret kung fu master Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who schools Dre on ass-kicking as well as patience, control, manners and not being such a goddamn trashmouth.
The new Karate Kid is even longer than the original, but nails the big moments: Dre realizing that days of tedious, menial labor have laid the foundation for kung fu is respectable; ditto the final showdown. In these scenes, as well as one where Chan kicks the shit out of a bunch of kids, each punch and kick rattles the subwoofers. These kids get fucked. Up.
Smith is a significant improvement over boringly sincere Ralph Macchio. And even Chan is borderline credible. His stubble-y goatee looks glued on, but his sad waddle and sleepy eyes, masking a deep hurt, are shockingly close to believable. Not bad for a guy whose acting until now has been restricted to wacky reaction shots, and a better segue into drama than Jet Li’s relentless crying in The Warlords.