Like its predecessor, 2010’s Harald Zwart–directed The Karate Kid begins with an uprooting. Young Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) are introduced in the Detroit apartment that he grew up in, now packed into boxes. Ralph Macchio shipped off to the Valley; Dre is going to China.
A skate kid behind on his growth spurt, Dre is shorter than almost everyone in his new class. He’s also the only black kid around, a fact referred to only indirectly when the beautiful little girl he’s courting, Meiying (Wenwen Han), asks if she can touch his hair—one of the few details of cultural curiosity that feels true. Meiying’s attention and Dre’s vulnerability attract horrible bullying from a jealous classmate (Zhenwei Wang) and his cronies, all of whom are training together in a show-no-mercy fighting school.
Smith was 11 years old when The Karate Kid was shot, about half the age Macchio was as Daniel-san. It’s significantly more disturbing, then, watching him get the snot beaten out of him in epic playground fights, each blow landing with the sound of two sirloins being smacked together. In the film’s only fight scene for Jackie Chan (playing noticeably older than we’ve seen him, with splay-legged gait and lowered eyes), Dre is saved from crippling by the intervention of his building’s super, Mr. Han. Seeing the boy’s dilemma, Han agrees to teach him a title-defying lesson in kung fu self-defense.
Smith is a good-looking kid, with Dad Will’s appealing smile and Mom Jada’s feline eyes. If Jaden doesn’t become a star, it won’t be for lack of support: He has had a well-remembered franchise reupholstered for him, plays opposite perhaps the only actor more world-famous than Big Willy, and shares the music video for the tie-in theme song with the billion-dollar fringe of Justin Bieber (it’s no “You’re the Best”). His actual performance is, well, proficient. Dre seems less a recognizable kid than a patchwork of audition pieces in which Smith shows his stuff: He does his own stunt work, gets in a couple of playful dance numbers, twinkles flirtatiousness, goofs off, pouts. His “spontaneous” riffs have an air of conference calls and exchanged memos. In big, emotional scenes, he doesn’t seem to be crying so much as deploying tears.
Macchio’s Kid headed West in 1984, when Sony and LA Gear ruled the world, and Japan was hyped for Next Superpower status. Eighties Orientalism gives way to a Beijing Consensus rah-rah tour of New China. The Parkers’ goodbye drive through Detroit is a tour of “Factory Closed” and “Bank Owned Foreclosures” signs; coming from the Beijing airport, they drive past new showpieces like Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building and the Olympic National Stadium, announcing the film’s tourist-board-approved vantage—it’s not a matter of if the Great Wall will show up, but when. American hegemony only seems to remain in the field of “cultural” exports: Dre understands Mr. Han’s lessons in “chi” through Star Wars’ “The Force”; there’s “Poker Face” and Flo Rida on the soundtrack, and of course the movie wouldn’t even be if not for our massive back catalog of remake-able pop crap.
The first Karate Kid was a bit of a Frankenstein itself: a Charles Atlas ad premise (97-pound weakling trains to get his revenge) that sent geeks flocking to the dojo; a Captains Courageous cross-cultural surrogate-fatherhood story; a fist-pumping aerobic workout montage taken from 1984’s Kid director John G. Avildsen’s Rocky. It’s all still here, all building toward the same showdown tournament destination, though the fighting is far more adolescent bone-crunching, FX-augmented acrobatic, and impossible this time.
If the original is fondly remembered, it’s because the looseness of the actors and abject trash soundtrack relaxed an audience to where we could enjoy being rolled up with our favorite, collectively remembered underdog clichés. Remake director Zwart, justifying his budget with copious crane shots, hasn’t done anything that would threaten to make this a really new movie—a Karate Kid who stayed in Detroit, for example—while brochure photography, prolonged runtime, and an extra helping of pathos show him groaning toward quality. There is the impression, deadly to the sense of fun, that the talent here actually thought they were remaking a classic.