'The Karate Kid': Chan-Smith version has kick
The surprisingly effective and occasionally moving remake of the 1984 "The Karate Kid" stars Jackie Chan as the reluctant instructor of kung fu to a hapless youngster (Jaden Smith).
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Karate Kid,' with Jackie Chan, Jaden Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Rongguang Yu. Directed by Harald Zwart, from a screenplay by Christopher Murphey, based on the original story by Robert Mark Kamen. 127 minutes. Rated PG for bullying, martial-arts action violence and some mild language. Several theaters.
Fear not, longtime fans of Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) — beloved lead characters of John G. Avildsen's 1984 martial-arts hit "The Karate Kid." Nothing about the 2010 remake of the film, starring relative newcomer Jaden Smith and cinema legend Jackie Chan, threatens fond memories of the original.
On the other hand, nothing about the new "Karate Kid" is an embarrassment. As revivals go, this one is well-above-average by dint of its intelligent reappraisal of major elements in the first movie.
Then there's 12-year-old Smith, who might not make a deep impression but is charming and visibly committed to a tough, physically demanding part. (Macchio was 23 when his "Kid" was released.)
Happily, Chan proves grittier and far more soulful than in his last, silly American production, "The Spy Next Door." He's a mature figure here whose Beijing-based character, Mr. Han, is a touchstone of restrained, masculine power and passion.
Without straying too far from the well-known story, the Chan-Smith version finds smart ways to freshen "Kid." Let's review: Avildsen's archetypal drama found fatherless, teenage Daniel transplanted from his East Coast home to sunny California, where his brashness drew karate thumpings inflicted by students of a merciless sensei.
A low-key, lonely handyman, Mr. Miyagi, trained Daniel in a more worldly karate, though his lessons (especially the famous "wax on/wax off") were comically inscrutable.
The new film's updates are all to interesting purpose. Smith's Dre Parker, a Detroit-based child sans father, suddenly finds himself in China, where his mom (notable work by Taraji P. Henson) has been transferred in her job.
Soon after, Dre is beaten, repeatedly, by thuggish boys schooled in fighting by an abusive instructor named Li (Rongguang Yu). Rescued by Han, a misanthropic maintenance man, Dre agrees to fight Li's punks in a tournament.
Thus begins Dre's training under a reluctant Han, who teaches that kung fu is not a weapon but an embrace of life and energy. Director Harald Zwart capitalizes on the handsome, Chinese backdrop, sometimes to cheesy travelogue effect but more importantly when Han leads Dre to witness kung fu marvels on a mountaintop.
The script's inevitable parallels to pivotal moments in Avildsen's film are all well-considered. Han's weirder directives to Dre might not be as fun as those wacky, car-waxing scenes from the original, but the thrilling fight choreography emerging from them is really something to behold.
Similarly, the crucial revelation of Han's tragic back story is quite different from Miyagi's. But the lyrical action scene that results — further bonding Han and Dre — is this "Kid's" emotional high point.
Strangely, the climactic tournament doesn't have the, uh, kick of the first movie. (A key scene is truly, badly botched.) That's a letdown, but for the most part this remake stands better than poor Daniel-san could by the end of his 1984 tourney.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org
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