By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic
Sometimes it’s best just to leave a classic film alone…
26 years have passed since Ralph Macchio played a transplanted teen from New Jersey who relocated to California with his single mom, encountered some bullies, was taught how to fight and win a karate competition by a noble handyman/martial arts master, played by Oscar nominated actor Pat Morita. These days, Macchio is almost 50 years old, Morita has passed away and the 1984 “The Karate Kid” is a distant memory. Is it worth an update?
In 2010, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Smith) is uprooted from Detroit when his mom (Taraji P. Henson) is transferred to China. Almost upon arrival Dre strikes up a friendship with a female classmate, Mei Ying (Wenwen Han), a studious violinist training feverishly for a competition to get into a coveted music school. Dre’s affection for Mei Ying doesn’t go unnoticed by a jealous school bully named Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who pummels Dre daily. A handyman, Han (Jackie Chan, “Rush Hour”), who works in Dre’s apartment complex intercedes, stops the beatings and offers to help Dre learn real karate and train for a tournament in which Dre could possibly face Cheng.
The fish-out-of-water premise from the 1984 movie is in tact. The script by Christopher Murphey bungles that setup by adding too many subplots. The storyline’s focus should be on Dre’s metamorphous from irresponsible kid to stoic karate hero. The romance with the teen girl is a far-fetched side trip that seems inappropriate for a 12 year-old boy (watching them kiss is uncomfortable). Han’s back-story (he was involved in a fatal car crash that killed children) is another diversion. Cheng goes to a karate school run by a sadistic teacher whose mantra is: Now weakness. No pain. No mercy. That’s another distraction that bogs down Dre’s quest, making the film tedious and long-winded.
Director Harald Zwart’s (“The Pink Panther 2”) pacing is abysmal, especially during the first act, and he doesn’t think things through. How many times does Dre have to get beat up for the audience to want him to fight back and win? Why does Dre track down Cheng and his gang, throw water on them and then run? Is that what kids do when they’re being bullied? Do knowingly court a knuckle sandwich? The film drags on for 132 minutes, with ambiguous, superfluous scenes because Zwart, Murphey and editor Joel Negron have failed to make judicious decisions. By the time Dre trains for the championship, the film has exhausted its audience’s patience. And be forewarned, there are levels of violence in this film that are totally inappropriate for young children.
This film saving grace is the appealing charm of Smith and Chan. Jaden is photogenic and definitely has charisma, even though he’s two-to-three years too young and small for the part. Hard to believe his Dre can beat his Goliath rivals. Jackie is perfectly cast as the shaman/handyman; pity the script and director let him down. Taraji P. Henson, who looks a bit like Jaden, plays a shallow, passive mom who lets her son get his ass kicked way too many times.
This update is no more than a speck in the large shadow cast by the classic, 1984 “The Karate Kid.”