The Karate Kid (review)

Enter the Draggin’

“Karate! Kung fu! Whatever!” says Mom. Exactly! Who cares what the Asian ass-kicking is called. Not important! The important thing is that the cute little American kid will teach the Chinese ignoramuses a thing or two about their own culture. Stupid foreigners!

No, it’s true. Jaden Smith (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Pursuit of Happyness) is the adorable and small-for-his-age 12-year-old Dre Parker, who moves with Mom (Taraji P. Henson: Date Night, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) from Detroit to Beijing because, well, that’s how the floundering U.S. car companies are dealing with the collapse of their industry: transferring their employees to China. Instantly — no, really, like the minute they land — Dre is getting beat on by teenage Chinese bullies led by the horrifically one-note Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) because Dre has the nerve to like-like violin-playing Meiying (Wenwen Han), and inappropriate likage of the female always brings out the male’s protective instinct, or something. Also: All Chinese girls play the violin. Dre gets a crapload of crap beaten out of him, to the point where it starts to get real uncomfortable: do people actually want to see a little kid take this kind of thrashing? (Director Harald Zwart [Agent Cody Banks, One Night at McCool’s] seems into making sure we know just how much physical abuse this kid is taking… but maybe he figures we like abuse after sitting through his Pink Panther 2. It’s a theory, anyway.)
Dre would totally be into learning some proper kung fu, you know, for self-defense, but apparently there is only one kung fu school in Beijing, and it’s where Cheng is already a student. Imagine the coincidence! Also, it’s a bad school because the mean-faced instructor there is teaching Cheng and his mean bully friends a sort of cruel fu in which the students have to shout, over and over again, things like “No mercy!” and “We’ll totally kill Will Smith’s adorable son, just see if we won’t!” So Dre has absolutely no choice — as I said, there are no other martial arts schools in Beijing, not a one — but to learn karate! kung fu! whatever! from Jackie Chan, who is the maintenance man in Dre and Mom’s new apartment building, a shabby place that suggests that Mom is no exec at this auto company and so why was she worth transferring to China in the first place?

About 12 hours into this honking cup of weak tea, Chan (The Spy Next Door, Kung Fu Panda) finally gets to be Jackie Chan(TM) — instead of doing stuff like fixing the shower in Dre’s apartment — by beating up on Cheng and his friends. Which is sorta sad. I know Chan is getting old, but kung fu-ing kids? For shame. Another hour later the movie itself actually starts, when Chan agrees to train Dre by nagging at him to pick up his jacket and telling him things like “Everything is kung fu.” Which isn’t actually reflected in the movie or anything, but it sounds good. After a few hours more, we learn why Chan is so sad, except we hadn’t actually noticed that he was sad prior to this, but perhaps it seemed like a good time to throw in some Oscar-clip-ish melodrama. Or maybe screenwriters Christopher Murphey and Robert Mark Kamen (Kamen wrote the 1984 script for the film of the same name, and also Taken and the Transporter movies) suddenly realized that the movie was not padded out with sidetracking nonsense enough, and without this detour there was no way they could reach their apparent goal of ensuring the film is 187 hours long.

Anyway, then the obnoxious score swells to let you know that an emotional epiphany has been reached. And then comes the inevitable training montage — it’s got all the Rocky-style stuff you expect, except the consumption of raw eggs — at which point you realize that, damn, there’s gotta be at least another half an hour of movie to go still.

And there is. But don’t worry: Chan will enunciate the moral of the movie, in case you hadn’t already been kicked in the face with it, and then Dre will parrot it back to him at a moment deemed appropriate, for those in the audience who’ve fallen into a coma — it’s something about getting back up on a horse, except it sounds more Chinesey. Eventually, Dre will make certain that Cheng and his mean-faced teacher understand that their cruel fu is contrary to Chinese wisdom and stuff. Go America!

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