Look, I don’t want to be difficult here, but at no point in the new “Karate Kid” does anyone learn karate. It’s kung fu. The characters call it kung fu. The film is set in China, which is where kung fu is practiced. Except for a brief instance of the kid watching some karate instruction on television, “The Karate Kid” contains no karate whatsoever.
I don’t ask for a lot in life. The idea of remaking a beloved film doesn’t offend me. I’m not one of those geeks who insist that remakes somehow retroactively destroy the originals. But if you’re going to remake “The Karate Kid,” it had DAMN WELL BETTER HAVE KARATE IN IT.
You would think this would be non-negotiable. You would think that if the screenplay replaced karate with kung fu, someone would say, “Oh, we’d better change the title to ‘The Kung Fu Kid.'” And everyone would say, “Right, right, obviously.” There wouldn’t even be a discussion.
Yet somehow it went like this:
FIRST STUDIO EXECUTIVE: It’s a remake of “The Karate Kid,” but instead of a high school student learning karate from an old Japanese man in Southern California, it’s a 12-year-old boy learning kung fu from an old Chinese man in Beijing!
SECOND STUDIO EXECUTIVE: Brilliant! What’s it called?
FIRST STUDIO EXECUTIVE: “The Karate Kid”!
SECOND STUDIO EXECUTIVE: I see no flaws in this!
(Remove clothes; roll around naked in money; end scene.)
Apart from THAT, it’s a pretty faithful remake of the 1984 favorite. The original writer, Robert Mark Kamen, gets story credit, and the screenplay (by newcomer Christopher Murphey) hits most of the same plot points, even approximates some of the dialogue. I guess if they’d called it “The Kung Fu Kid,” people would have thought it was a rip-off of “The Karate Kid, rather than an authorized remake of it. Plus there’s the name recognition. People are predisposed to liking a movie called “The Karate Kid.” The fact that it DOESN’T HAVE ANY KARATE IN IT is beside the point.
Sorry. I’m trying to hold it together. Never mind the backstory. Let’s pretend you never heard of the original “Karate Kid” and went into this one cold. How is the movie itself? Eh, fine. Its greatest asset is Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith, who seems to have inherited his dad’s effortless charm and likability. He plays Dre Parker, a 12-year-old Detroit boy who’s uprooted when his mother (Taraji P. Henson) is transferred by her company to Beijing. Dre is soon set upon by a bully his age, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), whose kung fu instructor preaches the “no mercy” method of fighting. Moving to another country is bad enough. Now he has to get beaten up by a jerk whose language he doesn’t even speak?
Along comes Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the maintenance man at Dre’s apartment building. He is reclusive and taciturn and not at all Jackie Chan-like. He knows kung fu, though, and he offers to train Dre so that he can face off against Cheng in an official venue, a junior tournament being held some weeks hence.
There are no surprises from that point forward if you’ve seen the original “Karate Kid,” and probably even if you haven’t. Dre learns lessons about life and kung fu, bonds with Mr. Han (no mention is ever made of Dre’s absent father), and we all go home happy, if not exactly overwhelmed.
The film, directed by Harald Zwart (“The Pink Panther 2,” “Agent Cody Banks”), was shot in China and makes some genuine effort to make the location part of the story, rather than just a Generic Exotic Backdrop. Most of the Chinese characters speak Mandarin, not English, adding to Dre’s sense of alienation. Meiying (Wenwen Han), a sweet girl Dre’s age, is driven by her austere parents to practice the violin constantly, suggesting the high expectations placed upon modern Chinese youth.
The only real problem with the film, other than its utter lack of karate, is its length: almost two and a half hours! Meiying, pleasant though she is, adds nothing to the main story, and a scene explaining Mr. Han’s tragic past is maudlin and unconvincing. All of that should have been cut, and the whole movie tightened up, to prevent the rambling, lackadaisical tone it wound up with. If you must remake “The Karate Kid,” and if you must do it without including any karate, the least you can do is get us in and out of there in two hours.
B- (2 hrs., 20 min.; )