Film Review: The Karate Kid

Formulaic but savvy reboot of the four-film series makes for a solid children's movie, bolstered by exotic locales and a genuinely talented young star.

The simplistic but undeniably effective 1984 film The Karate Kid massaged the classic  David-and-Goliath underdog theme with the outcast wish-fulfillment of any kid who's ever wanted to best a bully; not by coincidence was it directed by the Rocky-meister, John G. Avildsen. And like Rocky Balboa, the Karate Kid came back for round after round, culminating with a girl Karate Kid (Hilary Swank!) in the fourth and final film, The Next Karate Kid (1994).

While this reboot doesn't have the momentous cultural cachet of the Daniel Craig James Bond, it’s nonetheless a clever concoction: Boomer parents who liked the original 26 years ago can try to relive and share the experience with their kid, and making the hero an African-American from Detroit—a city that's a quintessential signifier of "Urban Black," with none of that buppie connotation—seems a smart move in trying to expand the audience.

Setting it in China, where 12-year-old Dre Parker (Will Smith's son, Jaden Smith) and his mom Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) relocate after she gets a job at a Chinese auto manufacturer, also makes sense, since in 21st-century America the kind of brutal bullying Dre faces at the hands of kung fu-trained schoolmate Cheng (newcomer Zhenwei Wang) would get the little thug, his parents and the look-the-other-way school officials into court faster than you could say "lawsuit." But apparently life is cheap is China, where in one scene a half-dozen little Beijing droogies beat Dre so severely that you'd reasonably expect him to suffer serious internal bleeding.

That's the scene, of course, where Jackie Chan, as a sullen maintenance man at the apartment house where the Parkers and other ex-pats live, comes to the rescue with his still-enjoyable razzmatazz of kung fu come-and-get-it, his choreography expertly nailing the line between defending himself against a bunch of tweens and not really hurting them. It's unfortunate he has to deliver such lines as "You see only with your eyes, so you are easy to fool" and "When fighting angry blind man, best to stay out of the way," which is either unforgivably bad or pandering screenwriting, take your pick.

Formulaic but not in a bad way, as Dre learns kung fu from Chan's Mr. Han in preparation for The Big Tournament, The Karate Kid hits all the children's-lit beats, from screaming anger at helplessly having to be somewhere because grownups say so, to painful acceptance and slow readjustment, to the spark of new adventure and first tentative stabs at self-determination. That all works here. And in terms of enticing visuals, it's hard to beat the dazzling panoramas of what for most Westerners remains an exotic land—particularly the stunning scenes at the Wudang Shan temples and monasteries, a roof-of-the-world so beautiful it makes you wonder why China can't just butt out of Tibet and leave them with their own.

But the most notable thing in this kids' film is the kid. It's easy to think, after he played a son opposite his real-life dad in The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), plus a few things here and there, that Jaden Smith is simply riding on his movie-star dad's coattails. But the naturalness of his performance is an eye-opener. Showing none of the slightly forced mannerisms that understandably afflict most child actors, Smith seems at once in conscious control and emotionally spontaneous. He has a great, subtle way of showing the doubt beneath Dre's blustery bravado, and of seeming like a genuinely irritating 12-year-old and not a ham-fisted, obnoxious movie 12-year-old. That all helps when the film gets sentimental or, in the case of Dre's budding romance with Meiying (newcomer Wenwen Han), too cloyingly cute. Here's hoping the kid stays in the pictures.