Andy Bockelman: ‘Karate Kid’ remake has punch, but less force

Movie at a glance

“The Karate Kid”

2.5 out of 4 stars

140 minutes

Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson and Yu Rongguang.

What’s more important to take into consideration when making a movie about martial arts — honoring the individual sanctity of ancient disciplines or preserving the title of a film franchise?

That’s just something you may want to consider before watching the remake of “The Karate Kid.”

Moving is never easy for a youngster, but for 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), it’s worse than usual. Besides having to get used to a new house and a new city, he has to adjust to a whole new country when his mother (Taraji P. Henson) takes a job in Beijing, forcing her son to leave his comfortable life in Detroit.

Being relocated to China does not bode well for Dre, and he immediately runs afoul of his school’s bully, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who promptly makes Dre’s life a living hell with an onslaught of kung fu attacks and threats of more if the new kid doesn’t stay out of his way.

However, help comes in many forms, and when Dre is rescued from his tormentors by his apartment building’s maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), he may have found a way of defending himself, as Han agrees to teach him the ways of kung fu.

The only worry is whether or not Han’s unorthodox training methods will measure up to the intense regimen utilized by Cheng’s ruthless instructor (Yu Rongguang), but Dre soon learns that Han’s kind of tutelage is just what he needs.

Smith seems to be taking his role seriously in the training scenes, though he tends to falter whenever he isn’t in the middle of perfecting his physical acumen. Although, his courtship of a preteen concert violinist (Wen Wen Han) is pleasant enough. The young actor’s unspectacular showing has to do more with his age than his usually considerable talent, and although he doesn’t stack up greatly to predecessor Ralph Macchio, it’s nice to see an actual “kid” in the role, as opposed to Macchio and 1990s successor Hilary Swank, who were already well into adulthood when they took on the title.

As for Chan, he’s utterly believable as a kung fu master — quite a stretch, huh? — even if he brings an uncharacteristically mopey presence to the story, especially when compared to Pat Morita as the enigmatic Mr. Miyagi.

Wang, on the other hand, easily tops his forerunner. Johnny Lawrence may have been a preppie jerk, but Cheng is a territorial little sadist with some vicious inclinations, courtesy of his nasty teacher, Master Yi, whose curriculum of cruelty and excessive violence is the antithesis of true kung fu or any other martial art.

To be fair, there is some karate in this movie, as Dre hopelessly imitates an instructional TV channel after his initial beat-down, but other than that, kung fu is the name of the game. Yet, despite the differences in the two styles, their young heroes follow almost the exact same path plot point by plot point, the most notable difference being the scenery of urban China rather than the California coast.

For instance, “wax on, wax off” becomes “jacket on, jacket off,” as Han has Dre continually hang up his coat, take it off the hook, toss it on the ground and repeat the steps to ingrain the fundamental positions of kung fu, though there’s also the hidden lesson of breaking him of his bad habit of chucking his clothes on the floor. It’s these kinds of contrasts that affirm this is best suited for kid’s Dre’s age or younger who will be more forgiving of the mimicry of the original movie.

But, even they might have qualms with issues such as the noticeably overextended running time. There is such a thing as too many training montages, but when you’re following in the footsteps of original “Karate Kid” filmmaker John G. Avildsen, you want to go with what works, though even he was just continuing the formula he started with “Rocky.”

And, considering current director Harald Zwart’s last movie was “The Pink Panther 2,” the only direction to go is up.

The main problem of “The Karate Kid” is that it has such a legacy to live up to. While it does what it’s supposed to by conveying the virtues of facing one’s fears and building self-confidence, the movie’s very name just reminds us that we’ve seen the underdog story too many times before.

Seriously, am I the only one who thinks changing the title to “The Kung Fu Kid” could have only helped its performance at the box office?

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