Jaden Smith, still a month from turning 12, has to carry a movie, carry his famous family name (dad is actor Will Smith, mom is actress Jada Pinkett Smith) and hold his own against Jackie Chan in "The Karate Kid."
He handles all of those challenges beautifully and smartly, proving again he is a fine young actor who can show vulnerability, fear or a little braggadocio.
In a remake of the 1984 blockbuster starring Ralph Macchio and an Oscar-nominated Pat Morita, Jaden plays 12-year-old Dre Parker. As the movie opens, he and his widowed mom (Taraji P. Henson) are leaving their Detroit home for Beijing, China, where his mother has been transferred.
3 stars = Good
- Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson.
- Rating: PG for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language.
Hours after arriving at their new apartment, Dre gets off on the wrong foot with some neighborhood bullies. They thrash him, leave him with a black eye and resume the torment at school.
When they later corner Dre in a courtyard and start to exercise the brutal and misguided lessons they learn in karate, a maintenance man and secret kung fu master named Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) comes to his rescue.
Mr. Han had overheard Dre tearfully telling his mother he wanted to go home and recognizes a kindred lonely spirit. Mr. Han takes on the half-dozen bullies and sends one boy crashing into another (minimizing the awkward sight of an adult pummeling children) and accompanies Dre to the bullies' school.
There, they realize the martial arts teacher is the source of the ugly attitude. In exchange for a reprieve for Dre, Mr. Han promises the boy will compete in an open kung fu tournament down the road.
And that triggers the start of their friendship and largely unorthodox training regimen, not just about kung fu but life. It takes them to spectacular locations, notably along the Great Wall of China and up many, many steep stone steps to a temple in the Wudang Mountains.
Director Harald Zwart also takes advantage of his Chinese location to include a look at the art of shadow puppets. Mr. Zwart, who directed a teen Frankie Muniz in 2003's "Agent Cody Banks" along with the sorry sequel "The Pink Panther 2," allows his movie to run on too long at nearly 135 minutes.
The violence seems a little stiff for a PG rating, and a few lines of dialogue are in Chinese, with English subtitles, all making this inappropriate for very little children. And the movie, truth be told, should be called "Kung Fu Kid," not "Karate Kid," but producers obviously wanted to capitalize on name recognition.
Fans of the original, however, will find exact lines of dialogue or shared sentiments and sly references to the iconic moments, as when Mr. Han seems to be trying to catch a fly with chopsticks but with a comic coda.
"Karate Kid" is all about the boy and the man, and unlikely buddies Jaden and Jackie make a sweet and sure cinematic connection.
Young Smith is shown in "Rocky"-style training montages and executes some impressive stretching and kicking (even, improbably, with a bum leg), while his 56-year-old co-star is allowed to exercise a little dignity here for a change.
For all the watchwords about the importance of the battle, not the victory, "Karate Kid" gives audiences what they want. It proves, though, that family films don't have to be the equivalent of movie junk food although sometimes the plate can be a little too full.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies. First Published June 11, 2010 4:00 AM