THE KARATE KID is a first-rate example of what a remake should be. Not a re-tread, but rather a re-imagining with a fresh viewpoint and an even fresher perspective. The action had moved to China. The kid in question is learning kung fu, rather than the eponymous martial art, and while there is ample use of the spectacular locations that China has to offer, the film never for a moment devolves into merely a travelogue.
This kid is Dre (Jaden Smith), a 12-year-old uprooted from the security of home, family, and friends in Detroit to China when his widowed mother, Sherri (Taraji P. Henson) is transferred to Beijing by the automobile company for which she works. Not moving isnt an option, what with the economy being what it is, and what with the unemployment rate in Detroit being even moreso, but Sherri is determined to make the best of it. If she is having trouble making the adjustment, she hides it well, extolling the virtues of the local cuisine among other things, and, on the other, ignoring the different attitude towards having hot water on demand. Dre, though, spends his first day incurring the wrath of the local bully, Cheng (Zhenwei Yang), who is not only possessive of a local girl Meiying (Wenwen Han), the violinist who catches Dres eye and whose eye is caught in return, but who is also a Kung Fu prodigy with a pack of friends who are just as mean and just as accomplished. Beatings follow, as do difficulties at Dres new school where constant provocation by Cheng and the complexities of chopsticks make his life unbearable.
Fortunately, his apartment complex has an unusual handyman in the person of Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a grubby and taciturn loner with questionable hygiene and a surprising mastery of kung fu. He agrees to take on Dre as a student when it becomes clear that teaching him self-defense is the only way to keep him in one piece. It will also give Mr. Han the chance to take on Master Li (Rongguang Yu), Chengs kung fu instructor who teaches his pupils the physical skills, but none of the mental discipline that kung fu requires. With little say in the matter, but a burning desire to conquer his bullies and his fear, Dre is entered into a tournament where he will face off against his antagonists. And his training will begin by learning to hang up his jacket when he comes home.
There are the usual tropes to this plot, but the script is more than a series of sequences showing Dre learning his skills while also strengthening his mind and winning the heart of Meiying, With a light hand and deft emotional maneuvering in the writing, and a sweetly heartfelt performance by Smith, there is no doubt by the end that win or lose the tournament, the real prize is the commitment and the courage that Dre has shown. Smith, whose parents Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith co-produced the film, may or may not have gotten him the role through nepotism, but Smith shows an overpowering commitment in the way his small wiry body is sculpted with training, the way he executes his kung fu with efficient skills, and the way he proves in every frame that he is a star. Also allowed a star turn is Chan in a role that demands more than mugging and dizzying martial arts moves. Far from it. Playing a man with a broken heart and a car in his living room, Chan has a dramatic stillness that is complex and completely real.
THE KARATE KID takes in the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, snack scorpions on a stick, fire massages with real fire, and a climactic kung fu competition that is genuinely exciting. More, it is philosophically compelling, dramatically engaging even in its more lighthearted moments, and emotionally true. If it werent for the hokey music montage of Dre and Meiying spending an afternoon together playing truant from their respective practicing, it would be as close to perfect for kids and their parents.