Some remakes update or reimagine, others Americanize or radically subvert, but The Karate Kid goes about its business as if the 1984 original were somehow obliterated from the earth and the studio needed a reasonable facsimile for its vaults. Then again, it’s been over 25 years since Rocky director John G. Avildsen’s endearing fish-out-of-water drama was a hit, spawning three sequels and cable ubiquity, and for the young people of today, that’s ancient history. Still, the attempt to relocate the action from California (via New Jersey) to Beijing (via Detroit) makes for an awkward translation, quite apart from the problems of trying to bottle the same magic with a lesser cast, a lesser director, and story elements that go bland with reheating. That the film works as well as it does—as an attractive, rousing time-passer for children—speaks more to the endurance of a good formula than its revitalization.
Though he showed some promise playing opposite his father in The Pursuit Of Happyness a few years ago, Jaden Smith is too young, too runty, and not nearly charismatic enough to make anyone forget Ralph Macchio as a picked-on new kid with working-class roots. Taraji P. Henson fares better as his eternally optimistic single mother, who takes a job (and a modest apartment) in China and drags her surly son with her. Smith finds a friend in a cute violin prodigy (Wenwen Han), but draws the attention of some high-kicking bullies who train under the same diabolical martial arts teacher. Into the Pat Morita role steps Jackie Chan, doing uncharacteristically low-key work as a lonely handyman who teaches Smith self-defense.
Director Harald Zwart takes advantage of the Chinese locations—no one could hope to out-montage Avildsen, but a Great Wall training sequence is a start—but he and screenwriter Christopher Murphey are more translators than creators. They move some of the furniture around, but any changes to the original film all make the new film worse, from the reduced training-by-manual-labor tactics (here just Smith hanging a coat all day and night) to the goofy addition of a JumboTron at the tournament. It’s still rousing despite itself, with a soulful Chan performance that still pales in comparison to Morita’s work. But the children of today should know the 1984 version exists and will make them happier. Perhaps their folks can dig up their VHS copy.