In the first Karate Kid (a movie that should now be considered a classic), teenage Daniel and his Jersey mom settle in Reseda, a modest California suburb that’s as Valley as they come. It’s a crucial bit of character shading, separating our hero from his wealthier peers, including the cheerleader he falls for. Today’s updated Kid goes an ocean further, exporting its black Detroit youngster Dre (Smith) all the way to scrubbed-up Beijing, where his braided hair gets fondled and his race is a novelty. He’s also, unambiguously, a kid: all of 12 and hardly the man of the house.
But that lump-in-the-throat feeling is the same as before, as the outsider tale receives an unexpectedly sensitive tweenification, transformed into a small-dude adventure that stresses dignity over coolness. (Today’s actual teens are way too cynical for what once worked in the Age of Macchio.) Credit better-than-good Jaden Smith, accessing a wealth of emotion, aside from moments when he’s been coached to come off more like his dad, Will. He’s young enough to weep and want to go home; fittingly, Jackie Chan is, for once, acting his age, slouching as Mr. Han, a handyman requiring a rebirth.
Sometimes the parts don’t quite slide into place as they used to, especially when the script insists on its budding romance. (Adorable Wenwen Han dances to Lady Gaga and suddenly the movie explodes into a weird sexuality.) Plus, you’ll miss “sweep the leg” and the Crane. Yet given the dreck we’ve seen this summer, it’s nice to be reminded of the virtues of clean storytelling and cultural curiosity.—Joshua Rothkopf
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