At 7, Jaden Smith appeared in his first movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, playing the son of his real father, Will Smith. At that same age, in 1961, Jackie Chan was enrolled by his father in the China Drama Academy, where Master Yu Yim-yuen pounded martial-arts skills into young boys' bodies and minds. Jackie stayed there for 10 years. So both actors know the discipline of child acting and the wiles of charming an audience. These are on impressive display in the epic-length, dewy-souled remake of The Karate Kid.
At some indefinable moment between its release in 1984 and today, the first Karate Kid which garnered no awards from critics' groups and no Oscar attention except for the performance by Noriyuki 'Pat' Morita was promoted into the classic category. At least that's the esteem it's granted in reviews of the new movie. I take this to mean that the original (written by Robert Mark Kamen and directed by John Avildsen) is remembered fondly and, when looked at again for research on this version, held up pretty well as a fable of learning, fighting and coming of age. Displaced from New Jersey to Los Angeles, a boy on the cusp of manhood (Ralph Macchio) is pummeled by bullies until he takes instruction in the Japanese tactics of self-defense from a sullen janitor (Morita), then wins the big tournament and the girl (Elisabeth Shue).
The new Karate Kid, directed by Harald Zwart from a script by Christopher Murphey, changes the scene from L.A. to Beijing, where Dre (Smith) has been brought from Detroit by his mother (Taraji P. Henson) after her husband has died and her company has transferred her. Other than that, the remake treats its source with the same reverence that critics' memories have afforded the original: sticking to the story, reprising many favorite scenes and, most goofily, using the same title. (Since the movie now takes place in China, with Jackie teaching Jaden the martial-arts techniques he learned in his own Beijing school, why isn't this called The Kung Fu Kid? Even the crackling alliteration would be retained.)
The Beijing location allows Zwart (a Netherlands native whose flimsy résumé includes Agent Cody Banks and The Pink Panther 2) to extend the movie to nearly two-and-a-half hours with tourist trips to the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. To his credit, Zwart gives less attention to the city's exotic aspects than to its grimy, bustling, working-class milieu; this might be Detroit with dumplings. Yet it's a familiarity Dre doesn't notice, so miserable is he, estranged in language, bereft of friends. When the lonely, undersized boy wanders into a local park and attracts the attention of pretty schoolmate Meiying (the severely dimpled Han Wenwen, who could be Laura Linney's Asian daughter), some bullies, also from his new school, push Dre around; none of the elders in the park intervenes. Dre realizes he must learn how to defend himself. He needs a teacher, and a father figure.
But who will help him? In desperation he turns to Mr. Han (Chan), the janitor in Dre's new apartment building. At first Han is dismissive; but when the bully boys attack Dre in his presence, he pulls some cool moves to scare them away. The punks, led by sadist-in-chief Cheng (Wang Zhenwei), are students of the fearsome martial-arts teacher Master Li (longtime Jackie colleague Yu Rongguang), whose unforgiving mantra is "No weakness! No pain! No mercy!" The message is clear: bad teachers make bad children. Mr. Han, of course, will be this good boy's excellent teacher, with a relentless patience and enough aphorisms "Everything is kung fu"; "There is only one person you need to control" to stock a banquet full of fortune cookies. And yes, there's a tournament, and, yes, Cheng will be Dre's ultimate opponent.
A child actor needs three faces: sweet, sad, sassy. Smith has them all, plus a fey beauty and a poise that's almost disturbing in its utter command of the screen. Ten or 11 when the film was shot, but looking even younger not to mention being apparently the only black kid in his school or in China he is the perfect minnow-out-of-water against the bully sharks. With Will Smith currently out of the movie-star business (he's made no pictures since Seven Pounds in 2008, and has nothing slated until a Men in Black threequel in 2012), Jaden may have to carry the burden of family celebrity, even as he carries his new film. Expertly.
For Chan and his worldwide fan base, The Karate Kid is a homecoming of sorts. His starmaking role was in Yuen Wo-ping's 1978 Drunken Master, where he played the rebellious student and Yuen Siu-tien (the director's father) his implacable teacher. Thus began Jackie's eminence as Asia's all-time top star, one who stretched his talents through a series of enthralling, literally death-defying stunts and accomplished it all with an underdog hero's smile.
At 56, his battered body not nearly as spry as in his youth, Chan has wisely decided that less is more. Here, as in his new Chinese-language war movie Little Big Soldier, he relies more on inward acting and stubborn charm than on action choreography. His Han is a broken man, nursing a grudge against himself, and needing a child to teach him that his life still has value, if he can only pass along what he has learned and endured. In a sense, that is Jackie's mission here. The Karate Kid has some nifty martial maneuvers, but at its heart is the bond forged by two child actors, raised in dramatically different circumstances half a world and nearly a half-century apart. Their connection is strong, sweet and worth applauding.