Just to be clear: There's zero karate in this update of the 1984 classic underdog tale; instead we get a fistful of Kung Fu, since the venue has been shifted from an L.A. apartment complex to the stupefying sprawl and teeming complexity of Beijing.
The original film inspired millions of kids to rush out of the theater and start crane-kicking their friends in the face, and forced beleaguered parents to shell out for YMCA karate classes.
The remake, excuse me, "re-imagining," will also fire up kiddies, though fans of the beloved predecessor may be fidgeting in their seats through the numbing runtime. Slavishly devoted to the structure of the original, this new kid in town is still crowd-pleasing treacle, this time gussied up with countercultural uplift and Chinese tourist-bureau propaganda.
In place of Ralph Macchio, we get runty superstar progeny Jaden Smith (son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith) as Dre Parker, a pre-teen dragged along for the ride when his mom's Detroit auto firm transfers her to China. You'd think his cornrows, hip-hop style and pouty-lipped cool would make him popular, but he becomes an instant target of the spin-kicking schoolyard bullies, who don't like his budding friendship with cute violinist Meiying (the adorable young Wenwen Han).
Fortunately, after taking a few whoopings, Dre befriends the scruffy local handyman Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) who's secretly a kung fu ace himself.
This unlkley duo bonds, as Han trains Dre to face his foes in a sanctioned tournament, and unearths his own buried feelings in the process
The casting of the gangly young Smith has several crucial effects: It assures a ticket-buying urban audience, yes, but it also neuters the romance, blunts the drama and drains most of the danger out of the fight scenes. This twerp is no Daniel-san; as an actor he makes Macchio look like Olivier; and his spindly little body seems ill-suited for martial arts. His antagonists are scaled down to his size, and while the choreography is good, there is little menace in the street fights.
He's not a banzai-tending Japanese sage like Pat Morita's Mr. Miaygi, but Dre's teacher is still an inscrutable magic Asian, full of fortune-cookie homilies about focus and heart. Chan has made rumblings for years that he had more to offer than fighting, and he finally gets his chance, yet turns in a performance that is curiously low key. In toning it down, Chan gets to show his acting skills, but it'd have been nice if the movie broke formula and let Han have a big showdown with the sneering rival Sifu, played by Iron Monkey star Rongguang Yu. Actually, any deviation beyond the cosmetic would have been welcome — the Karate Kid is as caught up in formalism and predictable moves as a losing fighter.