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'The Karate Kid' kicks butt

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Last weekend, just as it was beginning to look like the summer box office couldn’t get more depressing, along came an unlikely savior. Two unlikely saviors, actually: a seemingly stale, 26-year-old movie property and an 11-year-old star with incredibly good genes.

Jaden Smith‘s The Karate Kid wasn’t supposed to score a huge, $55.7 million opening. In fact, sizing up the weekend’s main contenders — a pair of nostalgic, I-love-the-’80s retreads — industry prognosticators were downright bearish, projecting that Columbia’s kung-fu family film, starring Jackie Chan and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith‘s untested tweenage son, and Fox’s splashy, big-budget reboot of The A-Team would pull in about $30 million each. Then again, they also predicted that it would be a close race.

All of that was tossed out the window when the receipts started pouring in on Friday. It quickly became clear that audiences were very interested in waxing off their cherished memories of Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san — and not so much in saddling up with B.A. Baracus, who, along with the rest of the A-Team, pulled in a lackluster $25.7 million. ”We were definitely thinking low 30s would be great,” Doug Belgrad, president of Columbia Pictures, says of Karate Kid. ”Anything more than that was gravy. And anything over $40 million was the kind of number you wouldn’t even dare to whisper aloud, it was so out of the realm of the possible.”

So what worked? Maybe the question is what didn’t? First off, Karate Kid was actually good. Critics, for the most part, praised it, and audiences gave the film a CinemaScore of A (under-18s gave it an A+). Then there were all those parents who grew up with the 1984 original and wanted to reexperience the film with their own kids — something they couldn’t do as easily with the PG-13 A-Team. ”From a marketing standpoint, we had the wind at our back,” says Belgrad, comparing Kid to another family-friendly hit, The Blind Side. ”That was another Cinderella story. The audience likes to go to the movies as a whole family.”

Especially, it turns out, when their last name is Smith. After his son began taking karate classes, Will Smith thought about remaking the Reagan-era touchstone as a star vehicle for his son, who had made his acting debut in Smith’s 2006 drama The Pursuit of Happyness. The younger Smith recounts, ”He was seeing how good I was getting and he was like, ‘You know what, Jaden? We should remake The Karate Kid.’ I was like, ‘Seriously? Whoa!’ ”

Needless to say, Columbia, which distributed the original and where papa Smith made the Men in Black films, was ready with the green light. Switching the story’s setting to China (where we hear there’s a large audience), adding a global star like Jackie Chan to what’s, amazingly, an almost entirely nonwhite cast, and having pros like Will and Jada on board as hands-on producers only sweetened the deal. ”Will thought of everything,” says Karate Kid director Harald Zwart, ”including getting Justin Bieber to sing one of the songs.”

Now the only question is how much kick is left in Kid‘s legs when it faces Toy Story 3 this weekend. Not that that’s stopping Columbia from getting a head start on brainstorming ideas for a sequel. ”We’ve been talking about it for weeks already, but we didn’t want to jinx anything before it opened,” says Belgrad. ”Jaden is incredibly charismatic, like his father. He’s a star. And we definitely want to find other things to do with him.” Can anyone say Rudy? (Additional reporting by Josh Rottenberg)