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It’s a measure of the times that the new version of “The Karate Kid” manages to be longer and bigger-budgeted than the original while having lesser impact. Featuring Jaden Smith in the title role and Jackie Chan as his unlikely mentor, the reboot certainly will appeal to younger audiences and nostalgic baby boomers who made the 1984 film (if not its several sequels) a smash hit. But there’s no doubt that much of the original’s charm has been lost.
The primary difference in this version is that the central character is transplanted by his widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson) not to sunny California but to China. This affords plenty of opportunities for more dramatic culture clashing and highly exotic locations — one can rest assured that the Great Wall makes a cameo appearance.
The plot, with minor embellishments, remains largely the same. Almost immediately upon settling in to his new home, 12-year-old Dre Parker (Smith) finds himself beset by class bullies, especially the vicious youngster Cheng.
During the course of getting beaten up in regular fashion, Dre finds that his modest karate skills are no match for his tormentors’ kung fu proficiency. But, much to his astonishment, one particularly brutal pummeling is suddenly interrupted by Mr. Han (Chan), his building’s nebbishy middle-aged maintenance man, who dispatches the bullies with an expert display of martial arts prowess.
Thus begins the unlikely friendship, with Mr. Han mentoring Dre in the mysterious ways of kung fu in preparation for a tournament in which the youngster will have the opportunity to face his enemy under more equal circumstances. Unfortunately, Cheng’s kung fu teacher is a particularly sadistic sort who has no compunction about instructing his charges to brutally maim their opponents.
Christopher Murphey’s screenplay pays suitable homage to its predecessor, with variations like Mr. Han forcing Dre to repeatedly put on and remove his jacket in lieu of the original’s car-waxing sequence.
The chief problem with this version is, ironically, the leads. Although Smith (who made a strong impression in his debut, “The Pursuit of Happyness”) and veteran action star Chan might have seemed like good casting on paper, they’re not suited to their roles.
The genetically blessed Smith (son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who are among the film’s producers) is so preternaturally charismatic and assured that even when his character is being beaten up, he never seems as vulnerable or as likable as Ralph Macchio was in the original.
And though Chan is highly appealing as the quirky sensei, the impact of his performance can’t compare to Noriyuki “Pat” Morita’s Oscar-nominated turn. When Morita’s seemingly meek and unassuming Mr. Miyagi finally displayed his prodigious fighting prowess, it was a delightful surprise. Here, the effect is lost; despite his bad haircut and shuffling manner, from the first minute he appears, one is aware that Chan’s Mr. Han is capable of kicking serious ass.
Technical elements are first-rate, with particularly good use of numerous scenic Chinese locations, including the Forbidden City.
Opens: Friday, June 11 (Columbia)
Production: Overbrook Entertainment
Cast: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson
Director: Harald Zwart
Screenwriter: Christopher Murphey
Producers: Jerry Weintraub, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, James Lassiter, Ken Stovitz
Executive producers: Dany Wolf, Susan Ekins, Han San Ping
Director of photography: Roger Pratt
Production designer: Francois Seguin
Costume designer: Han Feng
Editor: Joel Negron
Music: James Horner
Rated PG, 135 minutes
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