In the updated version of the 1984 crowd-pleaser "The Karate Kid," hip-hop replaces synth-pop, an African-American star replaces an Italian-American one and China replaces America. What's more, kung-fu replaces karate.
The good news, however, is that the story remains the same.
Names, dialogue and hairstyles have been changed, but Robert Mark Kamen's original script proves durable. The film opens with preteen Dre Parker (Jaden Smith in the Ralph Macchio role) reluctantly leaving Detroit for Beijing, where his mother (Taraji P. Henson) has a new job. He meets a pretty girl, Meiying (Wenwen Han), then meets her territorial suitor, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), whose expert kung-fu trumps Dre's rudimentary karate in several beat-downs.
Enter the story's second-most-crucial character: the taciturn maintenance man who uses his secret martial-arts skills to train Dre for a contest against Cheng. As the original film's Mr. Miyagi, Noriyuki "Pat" Morita earned a place in the cinematic pantheon; you'll find him right next to Alec Guinness' mystical Obi-Wan Kenobi. As the new film's Mr. Han, Jackie Chan - who else? - lacks the same earthy warmth but conveys a quiet strength.
Jaden Smith is a natural charmer who's beginning to resemble his father, Will (a producer here), and he builds a nice rapport with Chan; his very young age makes the father-son relationship more explicit than in the original. But "The Karate Kid" too often goes for drama over fun. Director Harald Zwart and his editor, Joel Negron, set a slow, somber pace more befitting a Merchant-Ivory production than a root-root sports flick.
Though still worth a cheer or two, this remake can't beat the original, which inscribed "wax on, wax off" into the pop-culture dictionary. Somehow, "jacket on, jacket off" doesn't feel the same.
Back Story: Chinese-U.S. co-production
The new "Karate Kid" may be the biggest modern movie co-production between an American studio and China, but it also opened up the film to government-mandated creative controls that ultimately yielded two slightly different movies. Chinese censors asked that several scenes, including sequences of bullying and a kiss between two young characters, be trimmed.
Although the production was granted vital access to an array of spectacular Chinese locations - the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Wudang Mountain - the filmmakers also had to negotiate sometimes byzantine permitting rules.
Try to film a movie in Los Angeles, and the locals will grudgingly get out of the way. Not so in Beijing. "The people run the country," says co-producer James Lassiter. "So if people didn't want you shooting in their neighborhood, there's no authority that can tell them they have to. That's why it's called the People's Republic of China."
The filmmakers, who hired a number of Chinese crew members, say the production inconveniences were minor and the creative conversations with partner China Film Group Corp. easily resolved. As part of Sony's deal, the government-run movie company invested about $5 million in the film's $40-million budget and retained "Karate Kid's" distribution rights in China.