Fellow children of the '80s: Merely pondering the possibility of a "Karate Kid" remake tears at the very fiber of our adolescence.
No one else needs to say the words "wax on-wax off" ever again. No teen bully could possibly be as slickly menacing as Billy Zabka. And as climactic showdown songs go, nothing could beat the cliched bombast of "You're the Best Around." (Now it'll be stuck in your head the rest of the day, just like it's stuck in mine. You're welcome.)
Sure, John G. Avildsen's original 1984 movie was formulaic, but it was OUR formula. There was no doubt Daniel-San was ever going to lose to rich, arrogant Johnny, leader of the Cobra Kai, in the finals of the big karate tournament. But that was OK. He had heart on his side — and the crane kick. Avildsen also directed "Rocky," so he knew a little something about playing up the underdog theme for maximum emotional impact. We were sucked in despite ourselves.
Nevertheless, a new version of "The Karate Kid" is upon us. Director Harald Zwart ("Agent Cody Banks") hits all the same notes and adheres closely to Robert Mark Kamen's original script, down to a sweep-the-leg moment in the finale. Details have been tweaked in Christopher Murphey's new script, including the setting: Instead of moving from New Jersey to Los Angeles because of his single mom's new job, our young hero moves from Detroit to Beijing, where he promptly incurs the wrath of the local thugs and learns martial arts to protect himself. (And by the way, it's now kung fu.)
Ralph Macchio was what, like, 35 when he played Daniel? But he looked 16, as his character was, so he seemed like a good fit. Now the character, Dre, is 12 — as is the film's star, Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada (both executive producers). But with his pretty face and slight build, Smith looks about 9. It's inescapably distracting. And so neither the fighting nor the romance with a girl who's out of his league — two key components of "The Karate Kid" — makes sense.
Jackie Chan is solid in Mr. Miyagi role
Even after the obligatory training montage, Smith is still a tiny, lean kid. Macchio didn't exactly bulk up, but he had an attitude about him, an East Coast swagger, that helped make his transformation into a karate master believable. Plus it's just uncomfortable watching kids this age beat each other up to the point of serious injury; there's no one to root for in that.
Still, we must watch Dre go through the motions of learning from Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the handyman in the building where he and his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) now live.
Dre hates it in China — doesn't understand the language, can't use chopsticks, etc. — but when he meets a pretty violinist named Mei Ying in the park, he's smitten. School bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) doesn't like this development, though, and goes on a mission to make Dre's life even more hellish than it already was. Enter Mr. Han, who not only fights off Dre's enemies, he heals the boy's injuries and puts him through his own peculiar training regimen.
We all know where this is headed: The Big Tournament. But first, "The Karate Kid" stops at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City — you know, just because they're picturesque — which contribute to the movie's overlong running time. Still, Chan is solid in an extremely different role, one that's much more serious and understated than his well-known, playful persona. All the trademark acrobatics are there, but without the cheerful mugging. After decades on screen, it's refreshing to see Chan shift gears like this.
Functioning in the Mr. Miyagi role, Chan also has decent chemistry with Smith. But things are awkward between Smith and Wenwen Han, the Chinese version of Elisabeth Shue's Ali-with-an-I. Their ages, her shy demeanor, her English (which is sometimes hard to understand) — all these factors conspire against them, and the film.
The ending is still rousing enough to make the film a crowd-pleaser, though. But after this, hopefully some '80s classics like "Sixteen Candles," "Better Off Dead" and "Revenge of the Nerds" will remain off-limits.