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June 27, 2010

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The Kid kicks back

FELLOW children of the 1980s: Merely pondering the possibility of a "Karate Kid" remake tears at the very fiber of our adolescence.

No one else needs to say the words "wax on-wax off" ever again. No teen bully could possibly be as slickly menacing as Billy Zabka. And as climactic showdown songs go, nothing could beat the cliched bombast of "You're the Best Around."

Sure, John G. Avildsen's original 1984 movie was formulaic, but it was OUR formula. There was no doubt Daniel-San was ever going to lose to rich, arrogant Johnny, leader of the Cobra Kai, in the finals of the big karate tournament. But that was OK. He had heart on his side, and the crane kick. Avildsen also directed "Rocky," so he knew a little something about playing up the underdog theme for maximum emotional impact. We were sucked in despite ourselves.

Nevertheless, a new version of "The Karate Kid" is upon us. Director Harald Zwart hits all the same notes and adheres closely to the original script, down to a sweep-the-leg moment in the finale. Details have been tweaked in Christopher Murphey's new script, including the setting: Instead of moving from New Jersey to Los Angeles because of his single mom's new job, our young hero moves from Detroit to Beijing, where he promptly incurs the wrath of the local thugs and learns martial arts to protect himself.

Good fit

But one of the biggest changes of all is the character's age.

Ralph Macchio was what, like, 35 when he played Daniel? But he looked 16, as his character was, so he seemed like a good fit. Now the character, Dre, is 12 -- as is the film's star, Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada (both executive producers). But with his pretty face and slight build, Smith looks about nine. It's inescapably distracting. And so neither the fighting nor the romance with a girl who's out of his league, both crucial components of "The Karate Kid," makes sense.

Even after the obligatory training montage, Smith is still a tiny, lean kid. Macchio did not exactly bulk up, but he had an attitude about him, an East Coast swagger, that helped make his transformation into a karate master believable. Plus it is just uncomfortable watching kids this age beat each other up to the point of serious injury.

Still, we must watch Dre go through the motions of learning from Mr Han (Jackie Chan), the handyman where he and his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) now live.

Dre hates it in China -- does not understand the language, cannot use chopsticks -- but when he meets a pretty violinist named Mei Ying in the park, he is smitten. School bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) does not like this development, though, and goes on a mission to make Dre's life even more hellish. Enter Mr Han, who not only fights off Dre's enemies, he heals the boy's injuries and puts him through his own peculiar training regimen.

We know where this is headed: The Big Tournament. But first, "The Karate Kid" stops at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City which contribute to the movie's overlong running time.

Still, Chan is solid in an extremely different role, one more serious and understated than his well-known, playful persona. All the trademark acrobatics are there, but without the cheerful mugging. After decades on screen, it's refreshing to see Chan shift gears like this.


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