PLOT: A 12-year-old named Dre (Smith) moves from Detroit to Beijing, China with his mom. He has a tough time fitting in, and is immediately bullied by a group of boys. A super at the building trains him in kung fu so Dre can defend himself and face the boys in a tournament.
WHO'S IT FOR? Families and fans of the first film should appreciate this remake of the Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita original The Karate Kid movie. Also, it seems to put China in a pretty positive light.
EXPECTATIONS: At first they were quite low. I didn't know why the film needed to be remade, and then when I realized it was now taking place in China, the working title of The Kung Fu Kid made much more sense. Then I started watching the preview, and after about 15 seconds I was pretty excited and therefore had to look away (it's what I do, no reason to watch previews if you know you're going to see it).
Jaden Smith as Dre Parker: I have trouble appreciating kid actors, especially when they are trying to be too cute, or have too much attitude. Here's the thing though, Smith can find the balance. Sure, it might have a lot to do with capturing some of his parent's (Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) talents. You can tell he pushes himself physically and mentally for this role. I could even see some saying it's too much for a little kid to tackle. Being humble and cocky is tough to pull off. The perfect example is when Dre decided to play ping pong to impress a girl, and it doesn't go as he had planned. Most importantly for this film, you are totally on board with this kid's journey. You feel for him trying to find his way in a new land, and stand up for himself.
Jackie Chan as Mr. Han: Dre says he's "just like Yoda." And I kind of have to agree. Broken English you speak, Mr. Han. It's terribly affective. He almost steals the show when he takes down the gang of kids trying to attack Dre. If you're a big Chan fan, that right there might be worth the price of admission. His best line, "Your focus needs more focus." What doesn't work for me is the back story about the car. It was way too much emotion for the moment. I liked the allusion of a painful past and didn't need it spelled out. Score: 7
Taraji P. Henson as Sherry Parker: Just like any mom she is a tad over-bearing and really doesn't listen or hear what her child is trying to say. That's not to say she doesn't love her boy. She also provides a good bit of comic relief in this role. There is the slight issue of watching her son get kicked and punched in the face. But then you realize, she's all about showing off her baby, whether the movie wants to admit it or not. Score: 6
Zhenwei Wang as Cheng: I'm sure he's older than 12, but for one of the first times in my life, I actually had the thought that this kid could kick my ass. He, along with his evil master, give enough of a reason to root (and worry) for Dre. No weakness. No pain. No mercy. Score: 7
TALKING: First off, all of the kid conversations are very believable. Really, isn't that the key? Well, that and Dre's training with Mr. Han. The kid is a little bit of the punk and over the course of weeks, or months, you can see him develop more respect toward Chen and everyone else. It's too bad The Matrix owns the line, "Whoa, I know kung fu," because there is a moment here when Dre could have borrowed that line. "Strike first. Strike Hard. No mercy, sir," doesn't make an appearance. Perhaps more important, do you realize in the original The Karate Kid, there's no such line "Put him in a body bag, Johnny," it's actually "Get him a body bag, yeah!" Kind of ruins your childhood, doesn't it? Score: 7
SIGHTS: Why do they train on the top of the Great Wall of China? Because it's there. Do you dare ask Rocky Balboa why he climbed the mountain in Rocky IV? I didn't think so. As far as the fight sequences ... good lord. This is more like Bloodsport. Some of these attacks are tough to watch. Parents might wince thinking about putting their little ones in the final tournament. Just like the original, there is a "final move." I think I liked the crane kick a little bit more, but the build-up/training for the final move works better in this film. China looks great, and is one of the few places on this Earth that provides mystery. Score: 8
SOUNDS: You feel the pain with the added sound effects in the fight sequences. Though I have to say, the songs are really all over the place. The kids dance to songs like "Poker Face" in a scene most adults won't care about. John Mayer starts us off with "Say what you need to say," "Flight of the Bumblebee" makes an appearance, and there's a small handful of Chinese inspired songs. But then there is the score. Great score. James Horner. The biggest issue, how could they not find a moment to play "You're the Best Around"? Score: 6
BEST SCENE: For me, it's all about the training montages. I love them. Can't get enough. The film does a good job of making you wait, with Dre stuck hanging up his jacket. So you are dying to see how Chen makes this all work with the art of kung fu.
ENDING: It doesn't overstay it's welcome. It's also a family movie in the basic sense that you can guess the ending. It's too bad they didn't tack on the beginning for The Karate Kid II when Miyagi and John Kresse (Martin Kove) settle their issues in the parking lot.
QUESTIONS: Why, why, why would Dre dump the bucket of dirty water on these kids? They didn't set that scene up well enough. Look, I understand kids don't think through everything, but even Dre's desire to even the score was a terrible plan. Also, what happened to the blond boy who befriends Dre? You could easily add another 30 seconds with that kid saying he can't hang out with Dre because he doesn't want to get beat up. If you're wondering why this is called The Karate Kid and not The Kung Fu Kid, well then you don't fully understand movie marketing and franchises.
REWATCHABILITY: Because I think it runs just a little long, I won't seek out a second viewing in the movie theater, but I would absolutely see this again on Blu-ray, and I will be stuck every time I see the training sequence on cable.
Best remake ever in my lifetime? I can't decide if that question mark should be removed and replaced with a period. But the simple fact that I am thinking about it is impressive. It improves on the action. It improves on the training. It improves on the acting (of Jaden Smith vs. Ralph Machio). Time will eventually tell. Nostalgia is a tough thing to compete with. At two hours and twenty minutes, there are some things that should be cut. Any time a film is longer than two hours, it should have a good reason. Don't get me wrong, films are allowed to be long, it just has to be warranted. The problem lies with what exactly should get cut, and adults and kids will have a different opinion on that. It's good to see a family movie deliver. Even though it is pretty violent, there is an attempt at an honest-to-god message. Also, with that violence, China provides the necessary suspension of disbelief. No weakness, no mercy and a remake we can actually respect.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10