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Play It Again, Kid

On a weekend in 2010 that featured movie versions of a 1980s TV series (“The A Team”), a 1990s TV series (“Sex and the City 2”), a comic book (“Iron Man 2”), a video game (“Prince of Persia”), and the nth installment of an animated ogre (“Shrek Forever After”), among others  (is there at least an environmental benefit to the endless recycling of ideas?), I went into the new iteration of “The Karate Kid” with a healthy dose of skepticism.

   Two hours and 20 minutes later (yes, it’s that long!), I emerged a believer.  The familiar story of a boy who learns, under the tutelage of a wise kung fu master, to stand up for himself still works. Maybe in a time of devastating environmental catastrophes, endless wars, and crippling unemployment we all need to believe sometimes that with mental discipline, hard work, and an attitude of inner peace we can succeed.

   Part of the reason for the movie’s extreme length is that it’s a postcard to China, as much an exercise in international diplomacy as filmmaking.  “The Karate Kid” is lovingly shot in Beijing and populated largely with Chinese actors. But until Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) begins the education of Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), the movie almost squanders its goodwill.  The first half hour feels interminable, as Dre and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) move from Detroit to China, Dre develops an adolescent love interest in fellow student Meiying (Wenwen Han), and he encounters a band of bullies led by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang).

   Martial arts legend Chan only shows his stuff once, early on and to good effect, when he rescues Dre from a vicious beating.  For the most part, he plays Mr. Han with the requisite gruff understatement in contrast to Dre’s impetuousness, except in one scene that reveals a back story with surprising feeling.

   Smith, son of actor Will Smith, is blessed with unbelievable cuteness and an acting pedigree, and he carries this weighty film lightly on his skinny shoulders.  Wenwen Han sparkles in her scenes with Smith.  Beijing looks lovely and lively.  There is an exquisite episode of shadow puppetry.  The fight scenes are well done and engaging.

   Of course much of the training involves one-line pearls of authentic or faux Chinese wisdom (you decide); all that’s missing is David Carradine playing “Grasshopper.”  And while you can’t help admiring Dre’s grit and athleticism, Smith has such a wispy physique that it’s a bit hard to suspend belief that he can take all that punishment and not shatter like so much — china.

   The movie’s leisurely pace eventually works to its advantage, allowing us to develop empathy for the characters, and in the end it feels as if it has earned its corny, triumphal, and wholly implausible climax. To recycle a critic’s cliché: “The Karate Kid” is the feel-good movie of the year.

  

   “The Karate Kid” is rated PG for language and bullying. My 11-year-old loved it; my sensitive 8-year-old fled after 20 minutes from the bullying, or maybe from the threat of teens kissing.  It is playing at The Moviehouse in Millerton, NY.

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