12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) could've been the most popular kid in Detroit, but his mother's latest career move has taken them to China. Dre immediately falls for his classmate Mei Ying, but cultural differences make such a friendship impossible. Even worse, Dre's feelings make an enemy of the class bully, and kung fu prodigy, Cheng. In the land of kung fu, Dre knows only a little karate, and Cheng puts "the karate kid" on the floor with ease. With no friends in a strange land, Dre has nowhere to turn but maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who is secretly a kung fu master. As Han teaches Dre that kung fu is not about punches and skill, but maturity and calm, Dre realises that facing down the bullies will be the adventure of a lifetime.

Kung phooey for kids.

It makes sound commercial sense to update the 1984 Hollywood hit The Karate Kid. Directed by John G. Avildsen, who knew a thing or two about the triumph of the underdog from being behind the camera on Rocky, the story of a bullied teen and his bond with the kindly Okinawan maintenance man who instructs him in martial arts so he may vanquish his oppressors has no shortage of uplifting moments; it played like gangbusters with teenagers. But this update has several qualities, some curious and at least one that is worrying, which mark it as an altogether contemporary production.

When we first see "Dre" Parker (Jaden Smith), he is leaving Detroit in the company of his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson, struggling to get over preconceived notions of pushy African-American matriarchs), for their new home in Beijing. Sherry has been transferred, a move that signifies the shift of economic might from the U.S. to China, a transition made explicit by the opening credit montage which contrasts the abandoned, post-industrial Detroit landscape with the audacious new skyscrapers of Beijing.

The movie, directed by Harald Zwart (The Pink Panther 2) and written by Christopher Murphey, coyly wonders if the Chinese might make worthy new screen villains, since the Russians and South Africans just don’t cut it anymore. The storyline distinguishes between the elegantly traditional China and the powerfully assertive new China, and it is the former that helps Dre combat the latter when his adopted environment proves to be problematic.

A crush on a winsome violin prodigy, Mei Ying (Wen Wen Han) puts Dre in the sights of Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), a fellow student and kung fu student (there’s no karate in the film) who beats the newcomer. Inspired by his arrogant teacher, Master Li (Yu Rongguang), Cheng will not relent, leading to the intervention of Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the silent, shuffling apartment building maintenance man who fights off Cheng and his gang and then buys his charge time by arranging with Master Li that Dre will enter a tournament where the boys can fight under supervision.

The problem, which is reflected in the ongoing debate over the film’s rating, is that during production Jaden Smith was an 11-year-old playing a 12-year-old, whereas in the original Ralph Macchio was a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. Despite the toned physique his training gives him, Smith is a boy and that makes the numerous fight scenes, with their bone-rattling blows, somewhat unattractive. His opponents are all older boys – some appear to be 16 or 17-years-old – and the film’s appeal to a younger, primary school audience may not sit well with some parents.

That concern aside, the bulk of the story is neatly told, with care taken to emphasise the bond between Mr. Han and Dre, with the latter gaining confidence and an appreciation of his failings while the latter must come to grips with the events that robbed him of his own family. There is wry humour, and a first kiss with Mei Ying, for Dre that is played out with adolescent nervousness, while the location shooting in Beijing provides a busy, overly colourful sense of place. The movie is surprisingly long – 140 minutes – and it used that time to showcase various Chinese wonders: The Forbidden City, The Great Wall, and Michelle Yeoh.

Jaden Smith has delicate features and he’s now capable of doing more than he did as a bewildered child alongside his father, Will Smith, in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness; the family cockiness comes easily to him as well. As for Jackie Chan, this is one of the more rounded roles he’s been offered since his belated Hollywood breakthrough. While he’s nowhere near the aged appearance of Pat Morita in the first take, he is starting to look his 56 years. Apart from sparring training, his only fighting scene is to initially protect Dre, which he does with his usual martial arts slapstick. He plays the mentor well, grounding the final scenes at the tournament, where the various moves grow more ludicrous and the narrative is turned into a video game with the fighters progressing through levels towards the final confrontation.

Still, if the first Karate Kid was a coming of age tale, what does the new version, with its young protagonist, aspire to? Dre’s a kung fu master before the onset of puberty, which is a reminder that kids really do grow up too fast today.


In Cinemas 01 July 2010,
Wed, 12/08/2010 - 11