The fact of the matter is it's been 26 years since the first Karate Kid, and given how many other movies have relied on the exact same formula, a full-fledged remake is pretty fair game. By moving things to China and casting 11-year-old Jaden Smith (as opposed to the 25-year-old Ralph Macchio of the original), Sony successfully put a fresh coat of paint on the rickety old story, and despite a gargantuan running time and paper-thin characters, it's kind of nice to see yet another kid learn the crane pose.
It's hard to know who to credit or blame for the film, since director Harald Zwart was brought in well after things were in development, and the film's likely true authors, Will Smith and the Chinese government that authorized the on-location production, are entirely offscreen. But even though The Karate Kid is a paint-by-numbers remake that exists so Smith can make his kid a star and China can promote itself to the West, it's also exceptionally well shot, frequently funny and touching, and perhaps most importantly, a vehicle for a great Jackie Chan performance. It's not quite enough to justify a two and a half length, but it comes close.
As for the plot, imagine the original Karate Kid with a few language barriers tossed in. Dre (Jaden Smith) and his mom (Taraji P. Henson) leave Detroit for brighter job prospects in Beijing, where Dre quickly tussles with the local group of thugs who also happen to be kung fu masters. Dre starts up a showy flirtation with Meiying (Wenwen Han), who's spoken for by head baddie Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), and soon he's hiding from these kids every day after school. In the middle of one particularly mean fight Dre is rescued by his apartment building's reclusive handyman Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who reluctantly agrees to teach Dre kung fu but only after taking the arrogant tween down a peg or two. Lessons are learned, poses are struck, a friendship begins to blossom-- cue the training montage.
It actually takes nearly an hour for the training montage to show up, thanks to The Karate Kid's glacial pace and greater interest in Beijing scenery than creating believable characters and letting us spend time with them. Just when Dre's training with Mr. Han picks up narrative steam, we're stuck watching Dre's baby romance with Meiying and constant shots of Beijing landmarks, so much that you can almost hear Chinese officials saying "Include that! It looks great on the postcards!" Cinematographer Roger Pratt captures the city and the surrounding countryside beautifully, but precious little of it serves the film's rote story. We get a great sense of Beijing scenery, sure, but none of how it impacts Dre and his mom, who experience so little actual culture clash they may as well be in Epcot.
It's truly fascinating to watch snotty and rambunctious Dre transform into a confident warrior, and the charismatic Smith and expert Chan build a believably tender and touching surrogate father-son relationship. Unfortunately all of the other characters fall a little flat, from the villainous rival kung fu instructor who glowers like a Mortal Kombat baddie to the pretty and blank Meiying and even Dre's mom, who played by Oscar-nominee Henson feels more like a plot device than an actual human. Direct Zwart does well handling the violence of the fight scenes and the emotional bond between Dre and Mr. Han, but everything else falls victim to his experience with broad children's comedies like Agent Cody Banks.
There's a lot to swallow with this new Karate Kid-- you have to accept that privileged child of Hollywood Jaden Smith is now a movie star, that a remake of a beloved 80s classic isn't automatically a travesty, and that about an hour and a half's worth of good material within a two and a half hour running time is a reasonable ratio. In any other summer, it might not be worth the trip, but summer 2010 is proving to be unusually dismal, and at this point there are worse things than sitting in the air conditioning, marveling at some beautiful cinematography and excellent fight choreography, and witnessing the acting rebirth of Jackie Chan.