Dre (Smith) is less than thrilled when his widowed mother (Henson) moves the family to China to start a new job. A stranger in a strange land, Dre quickly falls foul of local kung fu-fighting bullies while trying to impress a girl. Can low-key apartment caretaker Mr. Han (Chan) help him?
Rap with us, everyone: “Mom moved us to China, my name is Dre. On the playground was where I spent most of my days. Chillin’ out, maxin’ relaxin’ all cool, shootin’ some b-ball outside of the school. When a couple of guys, who were up to no good, started makin’ trouble in my neighbourhood. I got in one li’l fight and my mom got scared… And I said, ‘Bugger this, I’ll learn kung fu from the maintenance man…’”
Jaden Smith truly has become a Mini-Me to dad Will, and he’s the focus of this mutant crossbreed of the original, 1984 Karate Kid’s DNA with Fresh Prince sensibility and a honking great advert for the architectural and environmental wonders of China (forget the oppression! Look at the pretty walls!). It’s an odd mix, but despite being lumbered with a title that now makes little sense (not much karate here) and Pink Panther 2 director Harald Zwart in charge, the result, with a surprising $62 million opening weekend, is modestly (and pleasingly) successful.
Despite Smith as the putative star, most of the credit for that lands squarely at the feet of Jackie Chan, who brings out a version of his Drunken Master. “Master” in how he teaches Dre the true meaning of kung fu (hint: it’s not all merciless pain delivery like the evil Cobra Kai-stand-in children think) and his almost clown-like demolishing of the bullies who pick on the lad. And “drunken” in his more emotional scenes, laying bare the tragic past that weighs him down like an anchor. For the first time since he started making family films for Hollywood, he gets to share the screen with a child and really act, delivering sincere, unforced emotion instead of mugging and martial arts pratfalls.
The rest of the time when the filmmakers want to drag some feeling out of you, they forget Han’s lesson in noble kung fu and batter us over the head with James Horner’s orchestral noodlings, or go for the gut-punch with clichés torn straight from the Underdog Sports Film Handbook. And someone really needed to drag Zwart aside and advise him to chop down the hefty running time. But this new Karate Kid offers enough fighting and feel-good-fu satisfaction to conceivably launch a new franchise, headed for its inevitable conclusion with The Next Next Next Karate Kid, starring Willow Smith.
Smith might be the focus, but while hes got the charisma and the moves, its Chan who makes it punch above its weight. Nice scenery too.