As the aspiring martial artist in the new “Karate Kid” Jaden Smith is a big screen natural like his old man. Whether he’ll have a career like Will’s or one like Ralph Macchio remains to be seen, but for now, his charismatic presence is the best thing about this big summer reboot.
He plays Dre Parker, a reimagined version of the character Macchio turned into a 1980s icon. This time around he’s a cocky 12-year-old victim of the recession. “There’s nothing left for us in Detroit,” says his mother (Taraji P. Henson) as she packs him up and moves to Beijing to take a job at a car factory. There he is a fish out of water, experiencing both cultural and personality clashes. Falling for a pretty classmate () he runs afoul of class bully Cheng who opens up a forty ounce can of Bruce Lee on Dre. Alone and bruised Dre befriendsmaintenance man and kung fu master–“It’s China,” he says, “everybody knows kung fu.”–Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). The Yoda to Dre’s Jedi, Han teaches his pupil the discipline of kung fu and prepares him for the final showdown with the bullies, while Dre educates his master a thing or two about courage.
To anyone alive in the 1980s the “Karate Kid” story—although really the movie should be called “Kung Fu Kid,” as there’s no actual karate anywhere to be found—is a familiar one. The story has been freshened by a move to Beijing, but the filmmakers have wisely kept the heart and soul of the original. The underdog coming-of-age tale remains as heart tugging now as it was in 1984 hit movie but it doesn’t feel like a run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster and that’s a good thing. Director Harald Zwart takes his time with the narrative—although at 2 plus hours the simple story begins to feel slightly bloated—allowing the characters and not the action to take center stage. Add to that the beautiful Beijing backdrop and some nice performances and you have the anti-“Prince of Persia,” a movie that relies on wits and personality rather than brawn for entertainment value.
Smith is the centerpiece of the film. He’s clearly still a novice, but has inherited the best bits of both his mother (Jada Pinklett Smith) and father’s collective gene pools (he got his mother’s ears! Yay!) and has charisma to burn. He’s not going to win an Academy Award for this one, but he capably carries a great deal of the movie on his 12-year-old back.
Another surprise is Jackie Chan. Last time we saw him he was mugging his way through the truly awful “The Spy Next Door,” but here he shows his lion in winter side. For the most part he leaves his trademarked high kicking martial arts behind to focus on character and arcane sayings—“When fighting angry blind man it’s best to stay out of the way.”—but when he does fly into action somehow his trick of tying someone up with their own jacket in mid battle never gets old.
“The Karate Kid” is long, and it feels like it, with its tiresome and unfortunate catch phrase “jacket on, jacket off” (say it fast), an update of “wax on, wax off” from the first movie, but the payoff is a crowd pleaser and Jaden Smith is a superstar in the making.