REVIEW: The Karate Kid

26 06 2010

Oh, the lessons a jacket can teach us.

The Karate Kid” is a remake of questionable necessity – after all, the original is barely a quarter of a century old. Don’t worry, Pat Morita won’t be rolling over in his grave when he gets wind of the update. It’s not awful, and no harm or foul is done; except maybe to kung fu, which is the actual martial art taught in the movie but doesn’t get the honor of being mentioned in the title.

The movie is Jaden Smith’s vehicle, who really needs it because he didn’t get enough exposure in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” I’m not expecting some fantastic performance from someone who obviously only got the job because his dad is Will Smith. And it’s wrong to expect him to give us all the charisma and swagger that his old man has spent decades developing. As Dre, Jaden Smith brings to the table two assets that will serve him well if he chooses to keep acting: confidence and presence, which is pretty good for 11.

Dre is making the strange and unexplained move from Detroit to China with little sympathy from his mother (Taraji P. Henson). After catching the eye of a dedicated young violinist, he is unexpectedly launched into a mismatched rivalry with a savage band of ruffians. It doesn’t help matters that these kids have been taught a brand of “no mercy” kung fu (not karate!) by a brutal master. The first half of the movie plays out like an anti-bullying PSA as Dre attempts to avoid his tormentors. All the while, we can’t help but think, “Hey! If only you knew his dad was Will Smith, then I’d like to see you try to beat up this kid!”

And then, as if by some misplaced stage direction, enter Mr. Han, the hermit-like maintenance man of Dre’s building who helps turn the tide in his fight against the bullies by pulling out some unexpected moves. While offering that assistance, he also manages to get a then untrained Dre into a kung-fu tournament against the same people that would love nothing more than to give him a black eye and a bruised rib.

Mr. Han isn’t so much the wise sage of a mentor in the hands of Jackie Chan. He’s more like a stolid stone-faced statue, seemingly put out having to do anything to help Dre. I appreciate the script’s attempt to add some emotional depth to the character, but in the hands of Chan, the effort is wasted. There’s a reason some actors stray away from serious work, and “The Karate Kid” reminds us why Jackie Chan has barred himself in movies where all he has to do is kick butt.

It all culminates in the giant tournament – I don’t think I’m surprising anyone with that – where Dre puts Mr. Han’s unorthodox methods into action against a field of classically trained martial artists. The end is definitely exciting and somewhat rousing, although I was definitely less moved than the people in my theater who began cheering and applauding.

It’s just everything leading up to the end that drags the movie down – and there’s more to it than the fatigue that the nearly two and a half-hour runtime, practically an epic in terms of children’s movies, can bring. “The Karate Kid” is another formula straight out of the book of sports movies. It’s of the “training” variety: INSERT SPORT HERE teaches discipline/determination/hard work/commitment/respect (circle one). But I guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. C+ /



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