Director Harald Zwart's update of The Karate Kid retools an '80s teen-angst saga into a 21st century family-friendly exercise in cultural awareness and co-operation. Will Smith, whose company jointly produced this remake with Chinese counterparts, has designed a nifty showcase for his 12-year-old son Jaden, whose mix of vulnerability and bravado proves a good fit in the role of a transplanted urban kid trying to cope with life on foreign soil.
Smith's Dre Parker was vying for the title of most popular kid in his Detroit neighborhood. But his father's death and economic realities force his mother Sherry (a woefully underused Taraji P. Henson) to accept an overseas transfer to Beijing. After a slow start, Dre makes a charming new friend in violin prodigy Meiying (Wenwen Han), who seems equally taken with him, and he gradually adjusts to the changed environment.
But then he's bullied and beaten by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), Meiying's longtime family friend, who's convinced Dre will sully her talent and honor. Dre is so taken with watching martial-arts moves on TV that he fails to notice he's being observed (with a blend of whimsy and regret) by the handyman Mr. Han — who proves, since he's played by Jackie Chan, to be a lot more than just a guy who fixes pipes and furniture.
Even those who never saw the four previous editions of The Karate Kid will quickly predict the storyline: Mr. Han will become Dre's mentor/teacher, storm clouds will arise in Dre's friendship with Meiying, and he'll face his tormentors in a climatic final battle. Rather than make it a hard-edged East vs. West tale, though — whether out of global fellowship or unwillingness to risk losing overseas box office — writers Christopher Murphey and Robert Mark Kamen apply sentimental subplots about the loss of Mr. Han's loved ones and Dre's attempts to appease Meiying's family. As backdrop, Zwart uses footage of such epic sights as The Forbidden City, the Wudang Mountains and the Great Wall of China as well as Beijing locations.
Some potentially awkward moments, including an early scene where Meiying asks to touch Dre's braids, are played in overtly innocent fashion to soften stereotyping charges, and the broader issue of whether black Americans would have it tougher in an Asian climate isn't even broached, let alone explored. But the chemistry between Smith and Chan compensates for that timidity (not to mention Chan's legendary difficulty voicing English dialogue). The aging action hero makes a winning transition from fighting machine to character actor, dispensing wisdom and traditional secrets with the authority he typically brings to fight choreography.
While this version doesn't approach its predecessor's freshness on arrival in 1984, the 2010 edition of The Karate Kid has charm and heart — even if what we're seeing is not only made in China, but is kung fu rather than karate.