Who's In It: Jackie Chan, Jaden Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Zhenwei Wang, Rongguang Yu
The Basics: "In foreclosure-heavy Detroit, born and raised, on his skateboard is how Dre (Jaden Smith) spent most of his days/Chilling out, dancing, he moved to China with his mom, where he was shooting some b-ball outside his new Beijing school/When six or seven Chinese kids who were up to no good/started making trouble in his neighborhood/He got his butt kicked a bunch and his mom got scared, she said go learn some kick-ass kung fu from that maintenance guy who looks like Jackie Chan…" (More or less.)
What's The Deal: In this loose update of the 1984 classic that taught us all to pull a crane kick when all else fails, there is no crane kick. There's also no karate, no Mr. Miyagi, and no Joe Esposito singing "You're the Best" -- and so, being a diehard devotee of the original Karate Kid movies, I was fully prepared to hate every second of this new Karate Kid. Surprisingly, I could not; this new, plucky Karate Kid ultimately won me over. Even with its semi-forced homages to the original (Mr. Miyagi's chopsticks-and-fly bit, the Chinese version of "Sweep the leg!" and the mother of all stupidly mundane "wax on/wax off"-esque training moves). Even with the seriously flagging pace and overlong runtime (two grueling hours that'd make grown-ups and kids alike fidget in their seats). And even despite the paint-by-numbers way the fatherless Dre (Jaden Smith) and the lonely, childless Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) strike their surrogate familial bond while teaching each other important lessons. Blame it on that darn cute Jaden Smith, son of producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who does a heckuva job carrying the film and dishing out believable kung fu moves on his 80 lb., 11-year-old frame. That kid's going places. Let's just hope those places don’t include The Karate Kid Part II 2. Because the second Karate Kid flick is my favorite, and it is NOT to be messed with.
The Karate Kid's Greatest Strengths: The chemistry between Jackie Chan's gruff, downtrodden Mr. Han and Jaden Smith's precociously hip-but-scrawny Dre. Jackie Chan's lone action scene, a masterful piece of choreography in which he takes on six evil Chinese kids at once. Gorgeous location photography throughout the whole film, showcasing landmarks like the Forbidden City, the temple atop the Wudang Mountains, and every kid's favorite outdoor jogging trail -- the Great freaking Wall of China. The stellar fight choreography designed by Jackie Chan's own stunt team and the supporting cast of pre-teen martial artists who make it all look so easy. I'm pretty sure these 12-year-olds could leave the entire cast of The Expendables in body bags.
What Works So Well It Kind Of Works Against The Movie: The intensity with which little kids get pummeled. Nothing makes my stomach turn quite like the sight and sound of tweens beating the crap out of each other, one bone-crunching round house kick at a time. Jaden Smith's diminutive frame makes it even more disturbing to watch, even if he does have abs like Little Hercules. And this is rated PG??
Major Misfires: Dre's schoolyard romance with a violin-playing classmate (Wenwen Han). Call me a prude, but I don't need to see 11-year-old kids kissing just to add that requisite dash of romance. My minimum age for watching a kid get his bones broken and make out with girls is at least 15. Maybe 14. Okay, 13. And somehow, director Harald Zwart mounts a thrilling championship tournament sequence but fails to stick the landing, forgoing Daniel-San's winning crane kick in favor of a clumsy, unrealistic, CG-enhanced, and utterly forgettable physics-defying flippy-kick move. Blame him if your kids try to do that one on the playground.
The Karate Kid's Secret Weapons: Zhenwei Wang, the young actor who plays Cheng, the school bully and bane of Dre's existence. With his impressive wu shu skills and a face that screams "Evil Chinese Kid," Wang is destined for a career playing, well, evil Chinese kids. Also, Justin Bieber. Stay for the end credits and you'll hear "Never Say Never," a Bieberiffic single about… never saying never, which features guest rapping by... Jaden Smith! And with Bieber Power behind it, how can The Karate Kid fail?