Whether the world needed a new "Karate Kid," however, is debatable. The original, where Ralph Macchio's bullied teen was taken under the wing of a martial-arts sensei played by Pat Morita, was agreeably schmaltzy. Its patchwork of clichés — teen outcast, a wise mentor, the big match — proved as irresistible as it was shameless.
The new one remains faithful to plot basics while seeking to add a bit of oomph. Our hero this time around is 12-year-old Dre Parker, portrayed by Jaden Smith ("The Pursuit of Happyness
") the genetically fortunate offspring of producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Morita's Mr. Miyagi is now supplanted by Jackie Chan ("The Spy Next Door
While the early "Kid" offered the culture shock of a New Jersey kid in bleached-blonde California, this version is more globally ambitious, making Dre a new arrival in Beijing, where his single mom (Taraji P. Henson, "Date Night
") has a new job. China is an eventful place. Dre is barely off the plane before he is smitten by a cute girl (Wenwen Han) and terrorized by thugs led by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Luckily for Dre, the maintenance man of his apartment complex, Mr. Han (Chan), agrees to school the boy in kung fu.
Clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, "The Karate Kid" takes its time telling a story so utterly predictable. Director Harald Zwart ("The Pink Panther 2
") reveals flashes of stylistic flair, but the pace is by turns leisurely and leaden. More disappointing is how the picture misses opportunities of its own making. "Karate Kid" takes a black preteen from Detroit, places him in China, and then fails to do anything interesting with the premise. Dre attends a new school where the Chinese teachers and students happily speak English. We never enter a classroom; the only interaction we see is in the cafeteria for the obligatory bully-trips-hero incident.
Such wasted potential for drama is among several ways in which this "Karate Kid" falls short of its predecessor. The '84 flick was corny, certainly, but its grounding in a semblance of reality ratcheted up the stakes for our hero. You don't sense that here. And while the film's fight scenes are compelling, their reliance on sound-effects overkill comes across as odd when we're watching Chan smack down a posse of kiddos.
What saves "The Karate Kid" from mediocrity is the likability of its cast. Henson is terrific, while Smith proves charm can be inherited. Then there is Chan. Sporting a scraggly goatee and his customary charisma, he injects some much-needed life into an otherwise bland enterprise. He is easily the best part of the movie. —Phil Bacharach