When a child star is cute and has a few instinctual acting moves, that’s probably enough to get him by. Jaden Smith, who stars in the new remake of The Karate Kid, scores on both counts, but he also has something that’s rare to see in a child actor. He’s got presence. As Dre Parker, a pensive and fatherless 12-year-old from Detroit whose mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets transferred to the forbidding city of Beijing (the extreme move isn’t really explained — I mean, couldn’t she have been sent off to, you know, Denver?), Smith holds the screen while doing next to nothing, just standing there, silent and inquisitive, trying to figure out an angle on the situation that’s closing in on him.
Smith, of course, is the son of Hollywood royalty (his parents are Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith), and you don’t have to look hard to see traces, especially, of his father — the cool glare of appraisal, the quickness of his fury. With his nifty cornrows (a junior rapper’s ‘do that marks how much he’s grown up since The Pursuit of Happyness), Smith looks like an intensely aware goldfish. As Dre, he gets knocked down by bullies and drawn to the sweet sparkle of a teen violinist, but whomever he shares the screen with, he combines a kid’s directness with an adult’s way of holding himself in check. Though it’s not too varied a performance, Smith, like his father, acts with an emotional ease that’s almost gymnastic.
A remake of the 1984 go-for-it classic, the new Karate Kid is longer than the original film (it’s 140 minutes) and a couple of shades more downbeat, with Dre as a lonely Odd Kid Out in the bustling bureaucratic China that is his new home. Jackie Chan has a corresponding melancholy as the maintenance man who teaches Dre the art of kung fu. (Yes, they should have called it The Kung Fu Kid — but you don’t mess with brand titles like this one.) All in all, The Karate Kid is a more somber, less playful movie than the original, but at heart it’s the same old irresistible candy corn.
I did, for a while, miss the sly, poker-faced humor that Pat Morita brought to the role of Mr. Miyagi. When Chan’s Mr. Han begins Dre’s training by ordering him to hang his jacket on a hook, then throw it on the floor, pick it up, and do it all again and again, it’s a variation on the wax-on, wax-off gimmickry of the first film. Morita, though, let us know that he was enjoying the slightly sadistic joke of the Zen discipline he was enforcing. Chan, in a scruffy goatee, plays Han as very serious, almost morose, in his mission. He makes the guru-mentor slightly damaged goods; Han needs this kid as much as the kid needs him. Their earnestness grows on you, though. The bond these two share is sincere and touching.
The movie builds, of course, to the big kung fu tournament, in which Dre finally faces down a bully who has been trained to fight with ”no mercy.” It’s a piece of inspirational hokum that works nicely, though I do wish the film had been a bit more ingenious about shoehorning in the famous Ralph Macchio ”crane” stance. That said, The Karate Kid is fun, and believable, on the most important level: It convinces us that Jaden Smith has what it takes to fight his way to the top. B