"Ugh, what's the lesson here? Those kids were so bloodthirsty, " moaned a middle-aged critic at a local screening of the new Karate Kid remake. "I mean, did it have to be so black-and-white?" She seemed annoyed with the simplicity of the film's mean kids vs. meek kids story line, disgusted that Hollywood could present our precious children as pack animals who prey on the weak.
Well, lady, have you ever been a 12-year-old boy staring into the faces of a bunch of grinning goons ready to pounce on you, toss your book bag in a urinal and steal your lunch money? That's not just black-and-white. It's black-and-blue, too, and the revamped version of this 1984 teen flick doesn't sugarcoat the issue. Constant bullying breaks kids. It's a cause of suicide and depression, violence both physical and psychological. That shit is real.
The Karate Kid is a film designed to show how discipline, drive, self-respect and the ability to kick a dude in the face when necessary can help kids become self-reliant. This time out, we have Dre (Jaden Smith), a 12-year-old Detroitian transplanted to China when his widowed mom gets a new job. Stuck in a new country, he's immediately cornered by bullies—and not your average wedgie-and-wet-willy variety, either. These kids are black belts ready to unleash holy hell, and early scenes of Smith cowering in fear and choking back tears are heartbreaking.
But hey, this isn't a Gus Van Sant movie. It's The Karate Kid. So before you can say "wax on, wax off," Dre meets Mr. Han (Jackie Chan, pulling Pat Morita duty), who whips the skinny little wiseass into shape for a massive martial arts tournament. With the obvious approval of the Chinese Tourism Board (approval very few Western films boast), Dre and Han travel to the Forbidden City, spar atop the Great Wall and observe many cultural traditions on way to the final conflict.
Fans of the original Ralph Macchio film were rightly skeptical when news of yet another nostalgia-milking reboot emerged. Luckily, director Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks) takes the film in a different direction, winking at his audience from time to time with sight gags involving flies, chopsticks and crane kicks without going over the top. Like the '80s version, this is an update of the ages-old master-and-pupil bonding story, one we've seen a million times but seldom done with the right mix of humor, action and heart.
Smith, son of Will Smith, shows some of the goofy swagger that made His Freshness a household name. His genetic charisma shines, and he holds his own during fights scenes and moments of comedy and drama alike. The little Smith has an easy rapport with Chan, who also shows surprising dramatic chops and even gets to unleash a little mayhem in an awkward fight pitting him against six prepubescent boys, one of whom he swings like a baseball bat into another.
Make no bones about it: This is a kids movie, and suffers from the trappings of the genre, including a shoehorned love story and a tad too much sentimental goo. It also commits the cardinal kid-flick sin of running for more than two hours. But there's enough here to keep things afloat until the beefed-up kung fu showdown.
Moreover, the film addresses the sensitive issue of bullying head-on while offering a solid lesson: The best fights are the ones we avoid (or the ones that are presented in tournament form). Watching Smith eventually go all Bruce Lee on his tormentors is exciting. Watching him win respect by showing kindness to those who show only malice is a lesson anyone could stand to learn. PG.
opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas Town Center, Eastport, Cinema 99, Bridgeport, Cinetopia, City Center, Cornelius, Division, Evergreen, Hilltop, Lloyd Center, Lloyd Mall, Movies on TV, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Sandy, Sherwood, Tigard and Wilsonville.