11-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) finds himself friendless in a foreign land when his mother (Taraji P. Henson) moves the pair of them to China as part of her job, and as distraught as Dre is to leave home, things turn from bad to worse when he is confronted by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) and his gang of bullies. They repeatedly gang up on him, until finally Han (Jackie Chan), the quiet maintenance man from Dre's apartment, chooses to step in and fight back. Dre and Han confront Cheng's teacher, Master Li (Rongguang Yu), but discover that he is as close-minded and hard-headed as Cheng. Han is forced to barter so that he and Dre can leave, promising that Dre will fight Cheng and his whole gang one-on-one at a major upcoming kung-fu tournament, with training provided by Han himself.
The Karate Kid 2010 does not start well. Jaden, the offspring of Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, stands around looking sad and soulful-eyed while Henson natters on about going on a "magical journey". This is followed by an even sillier scene in which an anonymous friend gifts Jaden with a skateboard as a goodbye gift; as the kid ran alongside the cab in the pouring rain, all I could think about was a couple at a train station in an old movie. From there on, there's probably twenty more minutes of awkward child-writing and a few surprisingly brutal fights, and I was literally right on the verge of throwing up my hands and resigning to the fact that this big-budget not-remake was just a giant vanity project, a photo album the Smith family could look back at and sigh wistfully at when Jackie Chan finally makes a serious entrance into the picture (there are two false starts) and saves it from itself.
Chan is one of the most gifted physical performers working today, but age (and years of brutal, punishing stuntwork) have taken their toll on his superhuman body. Frankly, it's been kinda depressing to me to see Chan hitting the brakes, but it's like adding insult to injury that he's been doing it in moronic American crap like Rush Hour 3 and The Spy Next Door. Of course, over here, even when they import and redub his Hong Kong work, most of the material has a comedic bent, so much so that many involve the guy straight up mugging for the camera. For all American audiences are concerned, he might as well be a clown. I love Jackie, so that's only an observation, not an insult, but The Karate Kid arrives at a time when Chan is really pressing ahead with roles that want more acting than punching, both in China (Shinjuku Incident) and here. Sure, there's obviously some kung fu in this mistitled movie, but this is a real dramatic performance, through and through, and a good one at that.
Han is a quiet man. He explains that life is kung fu, and that kung fu should be used to defend peace. At first, the janitor job looks like a quiet way of life, embodying the message of kung fu, but in the movie's more surprising scenes, it becomes clear that Han is hiding and trying to use the martial arts as a mantra to cover his pain. In a world where studios (well, okay, 20th Century Fox) routinely open movies for kids that involve animals whose primary backstory is talking and farting, it's almost amazing that someone somewhere wrote a movie that had a real human being guiding the hero rather than a comedy fortune cookie that would get into silly mishaps. The lessons Han has to teach are also simple, to the point, and generally have enough meaning that it doesn't sound like the screenplay grinding its gears in the name of mysticality.
Of course, nobody's perfect, and while screenwriter Christopher Murphey seems to have a good grasp on Chan's character, there are times when he struggles with Dre. Everyone fears the writer who injects hip street lingo and of-the-moment references to Twitter and iPhones to make sure the audience doesn't forget this is the modern version of this material, but Murphey goes too far in the other direction. Seemingly unsure of how to properly characterize Dre when he's alone, he awkwardly fashions completely personality-free sentences that could come from anyone between 10 and 100. Once Chan shows up, the movie doesn't have time for side conversations, and Murphey relaxes, even fashioning a romance for Dre with a violin playing classmate named Meiying (Wenwen Han), although the partial language barrier is probably another clever way to get out of kid-like dialogue.
The Karate Kid actually runs almost 2 and a half hours, which I didn't notice while I was sitting in the theater but seems obvious in retrospect. Director Harald Zwart probably could have cut some of the intro, as well as a bit of the "jacket on, jacket off" schtick, even though the payoff is well worth it. The final fight stuff is all pretty routine, but my audience went nuts, offering this new Kid not one but three bursts of applause. Personally, I don't know that it's worth watching on the big screen, but it is probably worth watching, and I'd bet dollars to donuts it's better than any of the sequels to the Ralph Macchio original.
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