"The Karate Kid" is a kung fu kick of a film that hits more than it misses, with its fresh prince of Beijing in Jaden Smith, its scene-stealing grand master flash, Jackie Chan, and a shiny-happy China travelogue thrown in for good measure, or tax incentives, one of the two.
The grit and the grime of the 1984 original are gone, swept under some Oriental rug no doubt in the spit-shine director Harald Zwart has given every nook and cranny of the production. But the bones of Robert Mark Kamen's story of a struggling, fatherless boy and the man and martial arts that help him is still very much the heart of the matter — screenwriter Christopher Murphey's just gone global with it.
Though the new job takes mom, the always sassy Taraji P. Henson, and Dre (Smith) to kung fu central, the producers have kept the "Karate" name and thrown in some bad dialogue to explain it. For the record, and for all the parents left to search for classes the kids will probably clamor for, the highly choreographed fighting style used here is wushu, a kind of power kung fu that frankly looks pretty brutal, so be prepared for the kids to give and take a lot of punches.
Giving the movie even more currency today is its key dilemma of how to deal with the school bully. While cyber-bullying has become all the rage, for most kids reality is that bigger boy with a bad attitude who pushes and pummels them on the playground. For Dre, it's Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who doesn't like the new American interloper or his interest in pretty violin prodigy Mei Ying (Wenwen Han).
A few losing rounds with the Cheng gang sends Dre on his journey to find himself, honor and an enemy-crushing kick, with help from Chan's Mr. Han and plenty of nods to the original that fans will recognize along the way.
The critical piece of this Chinese puzzle is Mr. Han, the maintenance man at Dre's apartment house and a secret kung fu master. It's a wonderfully nuanced performance with Chan hiding the pain of old wounds in the dark recesses of his eyes, moving with an old warrior's limp that would make House envious. Though he masters and mines Mr. Han's interior, there is great fun in his face-off with the young toughs who are after Dre, which channels the battle magic that has made him a martial arts movie legend.
Meanwhile, Smith is a chip off the old charismatic block of daddy Will (he and mom Jada are producers on the film). The 11-year-old has a few credits under his black belt, most prominently playing his father's son in "The Pursuit of Happyness," but "Karate Kid" is his first starring role and the film hangs largely on his slight shoulders. Smith is surprisingly at ease with the more emotional notes — real tears after Cheng's well-aimed blows to both his body and his ego. He trained for months with Wu Gang, the stunt coordinator for Chan's martial arts team as well, and that athleticism is much on display.
As is kung fu itself, from the school where kids stand hundreds strong in their red gis, ready to take the day, to the final showdown between Dre and Cheng in front of a roaring crowd, a complex series of scenes that Chan's team stepped in to choreograph. The endgame — whether you kung fu for peace or to destroy — is once again on trial along with Dre. But first Dre must learn to be a patient grasshopper, picking up his jacket off the floor about a million times, which turns out to be the foundation for some of those nifty moves Mr. Han has up his sleeve.
Speaking of patience, sitting through "The Karate Kid," at well over 2 hours, requires more than some of its target audience will have, to say nothing of their minders, who may consider revolt when everyone heads to the Qi Xi Festival, one of several unnecessary side trips. The pacing is problematic, swinging between the blinding speed and bruising reality of the fights and a meandering sightseeing tour of China that takes Dre and Mr. Han from training on The Great Wall to the Forbidden City to a mountain retreat. Director of photography Roger Pratt, with a couple of Harry Potters on his long resume, captures the vast landscape and the historic landmarks of the country, and the intimate, sweat-pouring intensity of the fights, though it's sometimes jarring as we move between them.
For director Zwart, whose last outing was the depressingly bad "Pink Panther 2," it's a step up. The filmmaker has a good eye for action, but he remains too tentative with both the story and his actors, particularly the kids, and the movie gets away from him at times. Thankfully Chan is usually there to save the day, with Smith, a worthy student, right beside him.