It's a sign of our times. The reboot of the 1984 classic that pitted underdog Daniel Larusso against merciless bullies offers the same crowd-pleasing charm but with a contemporary twist. "The Karate Kid" reflects both globalization and bone-crunching stylistics, packaging dislocation and violence as picture-postcard entertainment stamped in China.
Will the PG crowd enjoy the retread? Absolutely.
Will parents feel conflicted about mixed messages? Probably.
Teaching children to adapt, face their fears, learn to respect others and strive for peaceful solutions are noble goals. But director Harald Zwart ("Agent Cody Banks") and screenwriter Christopher Murphey (story for "The Unsaid") litter the road to enlightenment with brutal facial bruises, kicks and snapping bones. The mantra of "No weakness! No pain! No mercy!" may overpower the movie's more admirable life lessons.
Instead of relocating from New Jersey to California, this protagonist (Jaden Smith of "The Pursuit of Happyness") and his widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") move from Detroit to China. Twelve-year-old Dre's sense of loss is palpable. Clutching a skateboard like a teddy bear, the cool kid with the cornrow braids hates his new home. He doesn't understand the culture or the language, and as seemingly the only African-American kid in Beijing, he's certainly positioned as "The Other." Dre engenders sympathy even though he's got attitude and Smith often mumbles his lines or delivers them unconvincingly.
Following the original movie's narrative formula, boy meets girl (Wenwen Han in a charming debut). Boy repeatedly gets beaten up by a gang of bullies (led by Wang Zhenwei). Enter the apartment maintenance man and latent grand master of martial arts (Jackie Chan) to mentor Dre for an approaching tournament, where the underdog can face his opponents on a level kung-fu mat. Dre puts the relationship into perspective: "You're Yoda, and I'm like a Jedi."
Chan plays Mr. Han as a slouched and broken man who snaps back to life on an as-needed basis. Similar to the iconic Mr. Miyagi, he puts Dre through repetitive exercises that the student doesn't understand. Jacket on. Jacket off. Jacket on. Jacket off. Just when you're tiring of the routine, and praying that fence painting isn't up next, Han shows Dre that hanging up a jacket and kung fu are one and the same.
Lenser Roger Pratt takes the armchair tourist on a visually breathtaking journey to the Forbidden City, Wudang Mountains and Great Wall of China. He provides glimpses of ancient architecture juxtaposed with statues of Mao, bustling streets and markets, and Chinese people of all ages enjoying the outdoors.
Zwart directs the key action sequences of the climactic tournament in slow motion and with ear-splitting sound effects. Feel-the-blow violence gets star treatment -- and then instantly replayed on the venue's big screens. Only you can decide if rooting for Dre to deliver vicious strikes, kicks and throws undercuts the philosophy of kung fu or constitutes harmless entertainment.