The Karate Kid review - There’s no karate, it’s set in China and they’ve renamed Mr Miyagi. Oh, well: at least the kid really is one – 11-year-old Jaden Smith deserving that tag more than 22-year-old Ralph Macchio did in the 1984 original.
At first glance, that may not be enough for readers with fond memories of the John G Avildsen version, a junior Rocky that had box-office tills ker-chinging. But it’s soon clear that any changes are purely cosmetic. Setting and martial art aside, the new Kid follows its predecessor to the letter.
Reluctantly relocated from Detroit to Beijing so his mother (Taraji P Henson) can take up a job opportunity, 12-year-old Dre Parker (Smith) would have trouble fitting in even if he didn’t fall foul of his new school’s bullies within hours of touching down. Head hoodlum Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) is no ordinary bully either, but the star pupil at a militant kung fu academy. He’s also annoyed Dre has been making eyes at pretty student violinist Mei Ying (Wenwen Han) – motive enough to give this interloper a royal playground ass-kicking.
Luckily Dre has a Yoda up his sleeve in Mr Han (Jackie Chan), a building superintendent and kung fu guru who teaches him how to hold his own at a climactic wushu tournament. You know what follows: a wax on, wax off exercise to instill muscle memory, numerous training montages and gnomic words of wisdom, delivered with soulful sincerity by Chan.
All of which begs the question why Harald Zwart’s leisurely reprise runs at two hours and 20 minutes. For the answer, look no further than the picturesque detours to the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and a remote mountain temple, scenic embellishments you suspect are intended to promote Chinese tourism. There’s also a mawkish interlude in which we discover why Chan is in such a shabby funk – time that might have been better spent giving the chop-socky veteran more action than the solitary scrap he partakes in.
Instead it’s Jaden who really gets to strut his stuff in short, sharp fight scenes. Some of the moves are a bit too smooth to convince given the combatants’ youth, but Smith’s limber likeability keeps things grounded. Clearly a chip off the old block, his easy screen presence and chemistry with Chan ensure that you root for the underdog and will him to prevail all the way to the final smackdown. Which, after all, is the whole point of The Karate Kid.
Less a re-imagining of a popular franchise than a live-action cousin to Kung Fu Panda, this overlong but entertaining guilty pleasure thrives on the charisma of its two leads.