The main challenge for Jackie Chan in The Karate Kid, a remake of the venerated1984 movie, is not to replace Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi. No, the challenge is to fight with kids without ever striking kids. This is something that Chan, who specializes in creative and humorous kung fu fight sequences, manages quite handily by getting those kids -- the movie's kung fu fighting bullies -- to hit each other, get tangled up in their own clothing, and fall down with just a little non-contact assistance from the stealth master.
The kid this time around is Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), a Detroit kid whose mother (Taraji P. Henson) is transferred to Beijing. The culture shock is bad enough, but Dre quickly becomes the target of Cheng (Wang Zhenwei), the star pupil of a kung fu academy whose curriculum appears designed primarily to create bullies and fascists. After Dre befriends Meiying (Han Wenwen), an aspiring violinist, Cheng and his gang make Dre's life miserable with regular beatings. Then Mr. Han (Chan), the gruff, shuffling handyman for Dre's apartment building steps in. He fends off the bad guys with some inventively nonviolent defensive maneuvers and eventually challenges Cheng and his headmaster to a very public duel at a kung fu tournament.
And, true to the original movie (except that the karate is replaced by kung fu), Mr. Han begins training Dre in an unconventional and, to the kid, annoyingly baffling manner. Mr. Miyagi had his young pupil waxing a car with the memorable "Wax on, wax off." Mr. Han waxes his own car (in a nod to the original) and makes Dre take his jacket on and off, on and off so that he might learn both the ways of kung fu and practical household skills. "Take your jacket off, hang it up, put your jacket on" doesn't have quite the ring to it that "Wax on, wax off" had, so it's not likely to become a cultural meme. But Mr. Han and Dre also climb picturesque mountains, visit exotic monasteries, and practice on the Great Wall. The movie, directed by Harald Zwart and filmed in China, develops a nice sense of place, plopping Dre and his mother into the hustle and bustle of Beijing's busy streets, lively parks, and active rooftops. The movie takes advantage of the exotic locales to enhance Dre's sense of cultural isolation, and to give the story some added authenticity. It also firmly locates The Karate Kid within the Asian martial arts movie tradition. The Karate Kid is not so much a nostalgia trip as a restaging in a more traditional location -- the original movie was already a remake of traditional Asian martial arts movies, repackaged by Hollywood for an American audience, and following the classic plotline in which an unlikely hero is challenged and defeated, masters kung fu, and is honorably redeemed in battle (after suffering a near-repeat defeat).
The Karate Kid is funny and charming, and takes advantage of Chan's penchant for deadpan, stonefaced humor (but also lets him display his acting chops for a change). Smith is just cute as a button -- I predict the kid will be a big star, and since The Karate Kid is a bilingual Chinese-American production, it will get him noticed by those billions of Asian moviegoers who already adore Chan. The level of violence in the movie is just right for youngsters -- no blood, no death, but Dre does get pounded pretty hard more than a few times. Lessons are learned, tears are shed, and Dre, a fatherless boy, gains a father figure while Han, a sonless father, gains a son. Most importantly, the bullies learn a thing or two about fairness, honor, and respect.
At more than two hours, the movie is just a wee bit long for kids who haven't yet mastered the focus and stillness that Master Han imparts to Dre. But it's consistently fun and entertaining, and offers a spoonful of pop enlightenment too.