The saddest thing about the new remake of The Karate Kid isn’t that it exists in the first place, though that alone is more than a little depressing. What really rankles the nerves about this film is that despite a commendably boisterous score and some sufficiently cocky wire stuntwork during its cacophonous fight scenes, this remake doesn’t show any signs that its creators believe the Eastern self-improvement mumbo-jumbo its characters espouse. Though little Dre Parker’s (Jaden Smith) quest to learn kung fu is nominally about training oneself to be a better person by being a better fighter (“Everything is kung fu,” solemnly intones Jackie Chan’s Mr. Han), that reason is pretty flimsy in light of the lazy and lifeless storytelling used to make it stick.
Admittedly, the original Karate Kid‘s central tenets were goofy as all get out: a white teen makes good on his potential by learning Japanese philosophy and some moves, snagging Elisabeth Shue in the end. As crass as that sounds, somehow, in spite of its garish narrative, there was something genuine about the original film’s belief in ritualized violence as self-actualization. This new Karate Kid bluffs its way through the motions and never manages to invest a shred of conviction in its banal paint-by-numbers stock plot.
Dre Parker is the proverbial fish out of water. He’s just moved from Detroit to China because his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson), has a new job there working for a car company. Dre is lazy (he refuses to hang his coat up when his mom asks him to), doesn’t speak a bit of Chinese, and doesn’t have a father figure to relate to (in his old apartment, the death of his father in 2007 is notched off on a vertical timeline of his life he tallies on a wall, as if losing his dad were a sign that Dre had grown a few more inches). He grows fond of Meiying (Wenwen Han), a nice, soft-spoken Chinese girl next door, but is menaced persistently by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), the school bully. Cheng naturally beats the snot out of Dre on a regular basis (that’s because “all Chinese people know kung fu,” Dre mewls to Sherry when he tries to get her to enlist him in a school for kung fu).
You know these beatings are supposed to hurt because of the combination of ham-handed slow-motion photography, flurry of fast-cut wire fu stunts, and thunderous sound effects (props to über-prolific foley artist Robin Harlan for creating such cacophonous and almost convincing noises). As a result of these beatings, Dre gets mad enough to want to learn how to get back at Cheng, who is constantly threatening more violence with an omnipresent glower that radiates all the fury of a thousand pint-sized suns.
Herein enters the film’s first hurdle: The characters’ just aren’t old enough to be convincing in their hormone-driven need to prove themselves. Dre’s preteen desperation might be semi-believable if he, his doe-eyed paramour, and his equally vertically challenged nemesis were a bit taller and several grades older; the trio looks more like a gang of sassy Mousketeers than a bunch of legitimately angsty adolescents.
This age gap is also a huge problem when it comes to the range that these kids bring to the project. Han hits her comparatively modest mark by beaming toothy grins worthy of a Colgate model and batting her eyelashes as vigorously as she can. Smith and Wang don’t fare so well: Wang’s overblown and overused grimace, which looks like it might have originally belonged to Dolph Lundgren, looks especially silly on a kid that hasn’t learned how to shave yet.
Smith’s performance is the worst of the bunch. The joke about this Karate Kid when it was in early preproduction was that it was one of the most extravagant gifts producer/actor Will Smith could give his son. Now that the film is a reality, that joke is not nearly as funny as it used to be. Jaden can’t help the fact that Dre whines his way through most of his scenes anymore than he can help being a lifeless and mostly unremarkable performer. This is especially apparent in scenes like the one where he first plants one on Meiying. The scene itself is canned as all get out, but that artifice is even more obvious because of the way that Smith tries and fails to look convincing as a flustered tyke in heat. It might be his age or it might just be the fact that he got a part because his daddy’s a mega-star celebrity. Either way, the kid just doesn’t have it.
Which is funny because, again, this is a movie about training and it’s kind of impossible to train to be Will Smith’s kid. Just as Jaden probably doesn’t deserve his starring role, so too does Dre not really deserve to train to fight in an upcoming tournament to prove to Cheng which of them is the real king of the jungle gym. Dre is taught by reclusive maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) that “the best fight is the one you avoid.” Han also teaches Dre that “there are no bad students, only bad teachers.” So, naturally, when Mr. Han takes Dre to scold Cheng’s kung fu instructor, who teaches his students to show “no mercy,” Han instantly caves in to the bigger man’s ultimatum that either Smith fights Cheng or Han fights him. I guess becoming a hypocrite is inevitable when you live your life one fortune cookie truism at a time.
That macguffin isn’t, however, the most insipid when it comes to the film’s myriad fallacious teachings. What’s most upsetting is Dre’s budding romance with Meiying. These kids have yet to hit puberty and already they’re swooning for each other, he professing his fealty to her strict father while she flirtatiously takes him backstage at a shadow puppet performance so as to better explain the intricacies of the play’s story of undying love, among other things. By now, using lovesick prepubescent kids as a means of indoctrinating kids into thinking that meeting your soulmate is as easy as looking over your shoulder at the girl sitting on a nearby park bench has become a staple of cruddy generic movies. But when your film is about the importance of learning how to better respect others and yourself, that kind of rote line-toeing bullshit just doesn’t cut it. Pop wisdom of the worst kind, The Karate Kid isn’t just flat—it’s inane and more than a little irresponsible.