Eleven-year-old Jaden Smith, son of actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, is already an award-winning star in his own right. This is his showcase.
It’s a remake of the original 1984 version, with a very similar plot: young boy and his Mom move to a new place, where school bullies unmercifully pick on the boy. It was very adroit of co-producers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith to change the locale to China, to neatly sidestep any residual racial overtones of the same kind of bullying in the United States (including the Japanese ancestry of the original teacher).
This time, the Mom is Taraji P. Henson, who is well meaning but somewhat helpless in this boys-will-be-bullies situation. And the rescuer is still the maintenance man for the apartment building, now an aging Jackie Chan, who, conveniently, speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin, as well as English, and is an oh-so-credible teacher of kung fu.
The emphases are very similar: the teacher stresses that respect for elders is an important component of self-respect. So is respect for the opponent (no intentional maiming), respect for kung fu (no cheating) and respect for the teacher (even if his methods seem pointless). A kung fu master is one who does not seek fighting, but rather making peace with one’s enemies. Fighting is a last resort, and even then, the important thing is (in theory) not whether you win or lose, but if you have conducted yourself honorably.
Of course, this is still Hollywood, even transported to China, and we know who’s going to win the big tournament before we ever start. But Jaden Smith is believable in this role. He’s also starting to demonstrate his acting chops: he can cry, he can get angry, he can even begin to charm the girls. (But it’s really friendship for the sake of mutual encouragement in artistic endeavors, followed by that first, hesitant, unforgettable kiss.)
This new “Karate Kid” can feature The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the majestic mountains, the teeming cities — it’s a great context for a new point of view. And, of course, in a nifty little Zen turn, the teacher is helped by his student, as well.
Expect the kind of physical humor that always surrounds the venerable veteran Jackie Chan, and expect, also, to sit too long through some tedious scenes of an eleven-year-old boy doing push-ups and leg kicks. But overall, “The Karate Kid” is the kind of movie to which parents can safely take their young boys and count on at least some semblance of gentility and “family” values, which will broaden its appeal considerably. This “Karate Kid” is the remake for the generation of all those karate lesson schoolboys who weren’t even born when the now-dated original was released.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church in Greenville, Texas.