Karate Kid remake delivers a well-received blow

Karate Kid ***

Opens Friday areawide

A redo of the 1984 film BY the same name, The Karate Kid is one cash-grabbing and race-changing relaunch you can actually get behind — even if it's just for good karma. Urban black teens across the country helped boost Bruce Lee to demigod status; that demo avidly patronized martial-arts chopsocky flicks since way back, while the white media ignored the genre as grindhouse trash.

Even as late as 1992, when the Cleveland International Film Festival premiered the monumental Once Upon a Time in China, The Plain Dealer dismissed Tsui Hark's masterpiece as schlock garbage. Even though the original Ralph Macchio/Pat Morita Karate Kid is a kitschy, manipulative Rocky rip-off, it at least deserves credit for making kung-fu more cinematically palatable for the mainstream.

Back in the '80s when it was made, virtually no American reviewer (but most moviegoerz n the hood) knew who Jackie Chan was. The martial-arts icon had to crank out 20 years of celluloid before finally breaking through in the U.S. He's a bit old for the energetic stuff now, but he smartly takes the Morita role in this Kid, which rethinks the clichés to satisfying effect. Young Jaden Smith — Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith's son (Mom and Dad are producers here) — plays Dre Parker, once again the friendly, vulnerable new kid in town (no, not Long Beach; sprawling Beijing) who's relocated from dying Detroit with his single mom (Taraji P. Henson) for business reasons.

Barely knowing a word of Mandarin, outgoing Dre runs afoul of Chinese boys from a mean-spirited kung-fu academy, adding serial bullying to his severe culture shock. To his rescue comes Mr. Han (Chan), the Parkers' taciturn handyman who, numbed and isolated by family tragedy, secretly harbors a wealth of ancient kung-fu knowledge and philosophy. To end the bullying (and, it's hinted, as a sort of therapy for himself), Han mentors Dre for a tournament showdown against the bullies.

Very few people watch Jackie Chan movies for the acting, but he's actually pretty good (check out his hyper-sentimentalized Cantonese cop action-drama Heart of Dragon), and this remake delivers what the best Karate Kid movies did — not really fight scenes, but master-disciple interplay and dawning respect across generations and races. Plus, the earlier movies never had a backdrop like this, with the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the recent Beijing Olympics complex taking supporting roles.

On a pure travelogue level, Karate Kid scores major points. Interestingly, Mao and his gang tried to crush kung-fu as an unwanted relic of old China, to the point where the Shaolin Temple was down to less than ten aged monks at one point. Free-market Beijing recognized the cash potential, completely about-faced, and now caters to chopsocky tourism. It's not hard to see Karate Kid 2010 as a propaganda-PR body blow. If the Chinese ever call in the U.S. national debt they've purchased, we'll all have to start learning Mandarin like Dre. And judging by this movie, that's probably not a bad thing.

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