Review: The Karate Kid kicks and misses


July 15, 2010 – Review in a Hurry: Like a kung-fu master poised on one leg, a movie must have balance—between action and emotion, heart and head, fast and slow. This rebooted Kid wobbles, flails, and ultimately stumbles in a futile attempt to top the original.

The Bigger Picture: Dre (Jaden Smith) and mom Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) relocate from Detroit to China for Sherry’s job. The reed-thin, gangly Dre soon falls victim to a gang of bullies skilled in martial arts. This vigorous start quickly fizzles as it takes forever for Dre and handyman/kung-fu master Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) to find each other as student and teacher. The scenes where they train, both mentally and physically, for a major tournament are the best, and, unfortunately, in short supply.

The world of the movie is sorely lacking. Dre’s mom? Hardly see her. Family back home? Never hear from them. That blond kid he befriends in the first ten minutes? Disappears until the very end. The script heavily favors talky scenes with Mr. Han or lovey-dovey vignettes with Dre’s crush, Mei Ying (Wenwen Han), as if no one else in Dre’s life exists. His character, then, feels just as incomplete.

There’s another issue with Dre, and it concerns the actor who plays him. It’s a delicate thing to comment on nepotism in Hollywood; it’s given us talents like Sophia Coppola and Michael Douglas, and it’s just the way the world works sometimes. But, in part, The Karate Kid is a lesser movie for it. The producers include Jaden’s famous parents, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. It’s obvious he didn’t beat out hundreds of unknowns with talent alone.

Though not embarrassingly bad, Smith lacks that openness, emotion, and naturalism that the best kid actors embody onscreen. Some of his most plaintive lines sound stiff, and he can’t sell the character’s lame jokes. He also looks even younger than 12—and younger than his galpal Mei Ying—which is just kinda weird.

He’s cute, he totally masters the kung-fu, and he’s clearly working hard. He’s simply not right for the part.

The 180—a Second Opinion: As disturbing as it is to see a bunch of baby-faced ‘tweens seriously kick the crap out of each other, the fight scenes are spectacular and the final tournament is kinetic, exciting, and expertly filmed—the only well-paced segment in the movie.

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