Roll back the clock yet again this summer (“The Karate Kid” reboots day-and-date with the action-slamming retread “The A-Team”), this time to the year 1984, when Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita starred in the original edition of the classic story of guppy out of his element in foreign land (Southern California) where guppy gets beaten by bully sharks, guppy signs up for Charles Atlas treatment and eventually becomes bigger and better fish. It worked so well that director John G. “Rocky” Avildsen helmed two sequels (although the final installment barely blipped the box office charts). Dormant for two decades, the producer of the original films, Jerry Weintraub, opted not to invite Avildsen back for this update, instead going with the Dutch-born lightweight Harald Zwart (“The Pink Panther 2,” “Agent Cody Banks”), who cobbles together this lukewarm edition.
And where is the karate? Would you call a film about Chicago “Manhattan”? Or a movie about flatulence “Gone with the Wind”? Well there you could get away with it, in a manner, although you might get sued. But there is not a single karate chop or point strike, and barely a mention of this ancient martial art. So while “The Karate Kid” follows the same emotional levels as Robert Mark Kamen’s original 1984 script, the new version’s neophyte screenwriter Christopher Murphey replaces karate with kung fu. Yeah, weird.
And the geographical terrain takes a much wider swing, knocking the action out of the country to China, where single mom Sherry Parker (Taraji P. Henson) and her 12-year-old son Dre (Jaden Smith) have moved from the job-decimated Detroit for work-related reasons. No sooner can the youngster malaprop “airplane lag” after the lengthy flight, then he ends up at the wrong end of the fist of local bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), a bad-a*s Bruce Lee who disapproves of Dre’s googley-eyed glances at the sweet violinist Meiying, a girl he meets in the park across from his new apartment building.
It gets worse for the unprepared lad. The bully (and the girl) are both in the school he is attending, allowing for more embarrassment, humiliation, and bruises. At the moment he is about to be pummeled into oblivion, the local maintenance man, Mr. Han (a grizzly, wispy-bearded Jackie Chan) puts Cheng and his fellow juvenile delinquents in their place and on their tushes. Of course, it isn’t all that easy, and the unlikely friends discover the source of their woe is actually Master Li (Rongguang Yu), a sadistic instructor at the popular Flying Dragon kung fu academy, where he instills his pupils with endless chants of “No weakness! No Pain! No Mercy!” Han proposes that Li keeps his ruffians out of Dre’s hair in exchange for the lad’s participation in a forthcoming kung fu championship tournament. Li would like nothing better than to crush his scruffy looking foe and the annoying pre-teen grasshopper. This sets up the extended training and friendship building sessions between Dre and Han, mostly revolving around a jacket on a pole. There’s also time to develop, ever so weakly, the puppy love between Dre and Meiying, who pinky shake to support each other—she at his competition and he when she auditions for the Beijing Academy of Music.
The rest of the film’s over 2-hour length gets filled with China plugs. Oh look, it’s the Forbidden City. Say, isn’t that the Olympic Village? Let’s stroll up that mountain to visit a monastery. How about some shots of the guys training on the Great Wall of China, deserted of tourists. Such a lovely, freedom-loving place. Let’s book a trip right now!
When the final kung-fu contests are being settled, the action plays out in a drab concrete arena, barely brightened by a few cheering fans and some colorful flags. At least one of the fighters sports an Elvis hairdo, but that’s not enough to enlighten the expected results, which will probably be cheered by anyone so manipulated. The story may all be about getting even, but there’s also a class on modern socialism going on behind the screen.
So, part propaganda piece (will everyone in Detroit start packing?) and mostly predictable, warmed-over rehash, I’m guessing most young girl fans of Will Smith’s son will find Jaden to be the cat’s meow in his first starring role. He’s no heavyweight (yet), and the acting is average across the board. At times, the film feels more a marketing campaign than a piece of entertainment.