In the update, the setting is not Los Angeles but Beijing, and the self-defense technique not karate but kung fu. Why not The Kung Fu Kid? Because in Hollywood, the brand trumps accuracy-in-titling.
As the film opens, Dre Parker (Smith), a wiry 12-year-old, and his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson, whose sunbeam smile warms the film), pack up their Detroit apartment and head for Beijing. They leave behind the penciled scrawls on the bedroom-door frame marking Dre's growth, along with corresponding events, from his soccer wins to his father's recent passing.
Smith, so cuddly as the young boy in The Pursuit of Happyness, is suitably prickly as the forlorn tween terrified of an unknown country and an unknown language.
As soon as Dre and his mother arrive in Beijing, he is slammed by the cultural differences. During a pickup basketball game, Dre learns that the American values of diversity and individual achievement are not shared in a nation that prizes teamwork.
When the youth chats up Meiying (Wenwen Han), a fetching violinist practicing on a park bench, her schoolmate Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) thrashes the American interloper. Naturally Meiying and Cheng attend the American school where Dre's mom has enrolled him.
While Meiying helps Dre with Mandarin and chopsticks, Cheng and his posse do everything they can to terrorize him. One afternoon Dre's bacon is saved by Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a grizzled janitor, who, like a slugger swatting dingers, swiftly dispatches the preteen assailants one by one. To avoid future reprisals from the bullies, Dre must face his enemies at a kung fu contest.
The bullies train at a dojo under the gimlet eye of a kung fu militant whose motto is "no pain, no mercy, no fear." Dre trains with Mr. Han, who believes martial arts are not for conducting war but for making peace. As in the original The Karate Kid, the master's lessons are oblique. Through repetition of a seemingly unrelated task, Dre internalizes kung fu rudiments without realizing it.
With key sequences filmed in the Forbidden City and at the Great Wall of China, filmmaker Harald Zwart directs with an eye for the picturesque and for the symmetry of the fatherless son and childless father figure.
The kung fu sequences, although enjoyable, probably would not make the Jackie Chan Top 10. However, Chan's acting is his most affecting since the 1993 policer Crime Story.
From Chan, Zwart elicits a subdued performance of surprising grace - surprising because Han resembles a rag doll, droopy and shabby, and fights with muscular elegance. From Smith, he distills the essence of the novice's desire to become more adept. Thus it is ideal for Smith, who, according to press accounts, is making his way as an actor and performed his own stunts here.
Although it is overlong (two hours-plus!), this Kid is a winner in more ways than one.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/