Back in action: Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith revive classic 'Karate Kid'

Posted: June 10, 2010

There are different ways to make it as a child actor, but none, apparently, as effective as having Will Smith as your dad.

His adorable son Jaden headlines the remake of "Karate Kid," the '80s B-movie classic that's been given an eye-popping upgrade on its way to serving as a star vehicle for little Jaden, who had three months of training from kung-fu master Wu Gang in advance of the epic four-month shoot.

In place of Pat Morita is Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan, and in place of forgettable SoCal locations is . . . China.

This handsome, wide-screen movie was shot entirely on location in Beijing and environs. It captures the flavor of contemporary daily life in the parks, shops, nooks and crannies of Beijing better than most contemporary Chinese movies (which run toward the medieval) and has key scenes occurring against such casually looming backdrops as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City - "The Karate Kid" is the first movie since Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" to be granted access to the latter.

Why stop there?

I mean, we've seen the Forbidden City. No movie, as far as I know, has taken us on the journey up Wudang Mountain to the Golden Summit temple, the spiritual home of Chinese kung fu.

I hope Jaden remembers his dad on Father's Day.

Thanks, dad, for the most gorgeous retread of a worn-out '80s franchise conceivable (it humbles the "The A-Team," if that's possible).

Of course, if expensive location shooting were the key to success, "Sex and the City 2" wouldn't be reviled. The key to this "Karate Kid" do-over is the father-son, mentor-student relationship that drives the story.

And while it doesn't match the heart and fortuitous chemistry of Morita and Ralph Macchio, the pleasant truth is that Smith ("The Pursuit of Happyness") and Chan are pretty good together in a reimagining that honors and expands on the original story.

Smith plays Dre, a fatherless boy from Detroit who follows his mother (Taraji Henson) to Beijing for an auto industry job (it's the first and only movie to use Beijing locations as a stand-in for Detroit).

Dre falters at school, where his relationship with a pretty Chinese girl (Han Wenwen) draws the hostile attention of local kung-fu thugs, who bully and beat him.

Dre decides to get revenge in a tournament and works with a retired kung-fu master (Chan). He trains and studies, learning that kung fu is a martial art that should only be used in self-defense - and in underdog movies.

Chan's presence (or his agent) requires that he get his own backstory, a melodramatic thing about a lost family that takes the father-son surrogacy up a notch.

It also adds unneeded length to the movie, although the original was also weirdly long. And let's not forget that the "original" was also a transparent attempt to replicate the magic of "Rocky" - the studio even hired "Rocky" helmsman John Avildsen for the job.

"Karate Kid" is bit overstuffed, but it's far better than the any of the Macchio remakes and a decent movie in its own right, with a surprisingly candid view into life in modern, urban China. It may be as much a summer sleeper as any branded remake could be.

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