Never mind the bullies: A language barrier and East-vs.-West ethnic tensions are the chief opponents facing this new “Karate Kid.” While it boasts some high-concept novelty in its colorful Chinese backdrop and the sage casting of Jackie Chan in the Pat Morita role, Sony’s multiculti reboot remains largely faithful to the enduring 1984 crowdpleaser, albeit with enough tin-eared English and Mandarin dialogue to bring another famous Chan (Charlie) to mind. Results are often flatly formulaic but ingratiating enough to lure family audiences onto the mat, though the hefty runtime might undercut pic’s B.O. chops.
“Kid” might also find an audience among devotees of the John G. Avildsen-directed original (and, to a lesser extent, its three increasingly disposable sequels). While it’s easy to laugh now at that film’s ’80s accoutrements and “Rocky”-for-runts uplift, its blend of earnest naivete and underdog-saga manipulation still goes down pretty smoothly, thanks to the warm yin-yang rapport of leads Ralph Macchio and Morita.
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As helmed by Harald Zwart (“Agent Cody Banks,” “One Night at McCool’s”) from a script by Christopher Murphey, this remake is an even more calculated item — shrewdly updated for our era of globalization, dislocation and parkour, but engineered to deliver the same dramatic satisfactions as the original, almost beat for beat. A reassuring familiarity seeps in as early as the opening frames, when we meet 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), who’s far less excited than his mother, Shelly (a wonderful Taraji P. Henson), about their move from Detroit to Beijing.
Dre has barely mastered chopsticks when he becomes smitten with cute violinist Meiying (Han Wenwen), only to immediately run afoul of some aggressive young thugs led by Cheng (Wang Zhenwei), who subjects the shrimpy foreigner to a merciless demonstration of his kung fu prowess. Indeed, “The Kung Fu Kid” would have made a more accurate if less marketable title, as Mr. Han (Chan), a local maintenance man and dormant kung fu master, reluctantly takes Dre under his wing in hopes of getting him in shape for an upcoming martial-arts tournament.
So as to teach his disciple the importance of focus, obedience, inner strength and oneness with nature, Mr. Han takes Dre on several excursions to the scenic Wudang Mountains and, inevitably, the Great Wall, one of many easy-access cultural cliches on display here. (Among the lessons in store for impressionable youngsters in the audience: Chinese people are skillful classical musicians, value family honor above all else and really enjoy touching black people’s hair.)
While there’s a potentially compelling movie to be made about an African-American adolescent struggling to adjust to life in urban China, “Kid’s” engagement with its setting never goes far beyond the picturesque (and, as lensed by Roger Pratt in such locations as the Forbidden City, it is picturesque indeed). Scenic training montages aside, there’s never the sense that Dre is learning anything meaningful from his new surroundings (like the language, for starters) that will benefit him in the real world, once he’s beaten the bad guys.
Apart from routine attacks by pint-sized flying ninjas, Dre has it pretty easy: Never a scrap of homework, and just about all the locals revert to English in his presence. (Even tough guy Cheng seems weirdly accommodating when he snarls things like, “You are fast, but not fast enough!”)
All of which is to say that “The Karate Kid: Foreign-Exchange Edition” is essentially a glossy Far East fairy tale and, as such, its appeal rests on the flexed shoulders of its lead actors, both of whom have the unenviable task of stepping into iconic roles and acquit themselves reasonably well. Smith is saddled with a bit too much defensive/bratty attitude early on, but the plucky young actor comes into his own when the role’s estimable physical demands set in (Smith learned kung fu from Chan’s regular stunt coordinator, Wu Gang).
Ideally cast as a martial-arts maven who’s seen better days, Chan initially channels Morita in his use of terse, vaguely Buddhist aphorisms before his instinctive warmth and good humor as a performer take over. Thesp even manages to sock over the moment when Mr. Han boozily discloses a traumatic memory — a scene that didn’t work especially well in the original and still feels tacked-on here.
Overall, the filmmakers have largely opted to embellish rather than excise, suggesting their reluctance to depart much from the original template. Still, it’s a sign of that pic’s dramatic durability that “Kid” manages to be as absorbing as it is, despite its nearly 2½-hour running time, and that the climactic tournament (now with instant replay) sustains interest even when it’s clear when and where the blows will land.
Henson offers rock-solid support, while Han could hardly be more winning as Dre’s love interest. In lieu of the original’s Joe Esposito, the soundtrack includes tunes by John Mayer, AC/DC and the ubiquitous Justin Bieber, classily offset by some welcome snatches of Chopin and Rachmaninoff.