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Jaden Smith’s Fresh Prince of Beijing Learns the Kung-Fu Hustle

The best that can be said of The Karate Kid, a bloated but diverting remake of the 1984 original, is that most of its two-and-a-half hour running time reflects a near-flawless reprise. The names and faces have changed, as has the setting, with China replacing sunny Southern California. But the essence of the story hasn’t changed an iota.

For newcomers: Dre, transplanted from Detroit to Beijing without so much as a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese, is the new kid on the block, suffering his way through a hard-knocks initiation. (In the original, Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio, arrived in L.A. by way of New Jersey.) Innocently, Dre commits the dangerous sin of talking to a girl the schoolyard bully seems to fancy, and his reward is a black eye.

That doesn’t sit well with Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the next-door handyman who watches Dre come home from school each day with a fresh set of bruises. After a time – just long enough for the slight but athletic Dre to take an interest in kung fu – Han rescues the boy, teaching him self-defense and the basics of manhood.

It doesn’t take a student of the original to know there’s going to be a showdown, and the new Karate Kid delivers, pitting Dre against his chief tormentor (who exists only to punch, kick and scowl his way into our bad graces) in a tournament. Until then, we are invited to giggle at Han’s unorthodox lessons, and marvel at the profundity of his simple philosophy.

All of this is handled deftly enough by director Harald Zwart, who erases lingering memories of last year’s unfortunate Pink Panther 2 with a handsome film that makes the most of its picturesque locations, allowing Dre to train atop the Great Wall and explore the Forbidden City. The tournament is equally well constructed, a triumph of artful choreography.

Dre is played by Jaden Smith, son of Will and wife Jada Pinkett, and though he has an engaging screen presence – a natural, playful way with the camera, as impressive as his agility – his emotional range is less developed than Macchio’s. (An unfair comparison perhaps, since Macchio was 23 when he starred in the first Karate Kid.) At 11, the sometimes stiff Smith remains a work in progress, but the flashes of promise he shows here suggest a star in the making.

In the Mr. Miyagi role – now Mr. Han – Chan submits a performance that is uncharacteristically nuanced, and his restraint serves him well. The key to any Karate Kid movie – this is the fifth – is the relationship between teacher and student, and though Chan’s fleet-footed mentor won’t take anyone by surprise, the way the shorter, paunchier Noriyuki “Pat” Morita did in the original, he is mostly credible as the aging guru thrust into the thick of a nasty fight. We know he’s going to shake off the rust and bust a move, it’s just a matter of when.

The depth of his on-screen relationship with Smith is established largely through training montages – a shortcut to character development common to sports dramas – but there is a single scene, beautifully shot, in which Han reveals to Dre the tragedy of his past. In that moment we catch a glimpse of what might have been: a moving fable reimagined, with a resonance all its own, earned more than borrowed. It’s gone in an instant, unlike so much of this overlong movie, and it makes the rest pale by comparison.

Does the new version surpass its predecessor in any way? No. It takes the same story and feeds it back to us more or less intact, with only a few superficial alterations. This time around there is a nasty subtext to the violence, which is motivated partly by a streak of racism and xenophobia absent from John Avildsen’s more innocent original. It doesn’t lend the material urgency – it’s just a manipulative tweak on the formula – but it stands as Zwart and screenwriter Christopher Murphey’s most notable contribution to a story that required no revisiting.