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The Karate Kid

Your enjoyment of The Karate Kid will depend on your tolerance for watching 12-year-olds beat the snot out of each other. At times, director Harald Zwart ratchets up the fighting and good vs. evil overacting that it seems a done deal that someone will end up with a lost face and a broken neck.

But then I remembered that that was actually Rocky IV, an installment in a different predictable but fun '80's franchise. For those who actually are 12, the plot of The Karate Kid will be utterly unpredictable, because you've seen very few of the movies that influenced it, such as The Karate Kid, The Karate Kid 2, The Karate Kid 3 or The Next Karate Kid.

If it seems like I'm not putting much effort into writing this review, it's because screenwriter Christopher Murphey didn't put much into his script. Not only does the movie acknowledge that no actual karate is in it without explaining how you can then call it the name of a DC Comics character (still attributed in the credits), it's so rote with its plot points that it doesn't even bother anchoring them to the story.

Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) has a dark secret? A lesser movie would waste time hinting that it existed before revealing it. This one has to find an excuse to show off major landmarks in China.

Yet at times this bloated remake (no kids' movie should clock at 140 minutes) still has charms, like there's a leaner, more entertaining version dying to break out. Most of that can be attributed to the growing charisma of Jaden Smith, being groomed to be his father, and the easy-going natural star quality of Chan. Together, they can almost overcome any leaden obstacle thrown in their path, including the requirement of being a partial travelogue.

The change of locale to Beijing from Los Angeles doesn't change the flavor of the plot. Dre (Smith) doesn't just feel like a fish out of water; he's got a language barrier and some cultural issues that his creeping pubescence makes him clearly unable to overcome. When he consistently runs afoul of some bullies, Dre finds an unlikely ally in his apartment's superintendent, Mr. Han.

Of course, the bullies all train at an evil martial arts dojo, and Han believes that kung fu - not karate - is actually about avoiding violence. Hard for that belief to carry much weight when your opponent's motto ends with "No mercy." To buy Dre some time, Han agrees to train him on the proviso that everything gets solved at the big martial arts tournament conveniently but mysteriously open only to 12 year olds.

There's also sweet young violinist Meiying (Wenwen Han) to provide friendship that blurs with romance and cause even more culture clash. Luckily, Smith has enough charisma to melt an angry's father heart merely by memorizing a few humble phrases in Chinese.

Kids should be fascinated by the snapshots of Chinese culture, including the Forbidden City and, somewhat improbably, the Great Wall. The film even travels to a monastery which kids should recognize as similar to that in Kung Fu Panda. Notice not Karate Panda.

On the other hand, this love letter to all the beauty of Chinese culture skirts around some uglier realities. While we see lots of boys at Dre's school, they far outnumber the girls. And there sure are a lot of friendly soldiers standing guard, especially when Dre and Meiying frolic around Tianmen Square.

It's not meant to be terribly deep, just entertaining (hence the inclusion of a Justin Bieber song over the end credits). And The Karate Kid is also a gift from Jaden's mom and dad to him. It might have made sense to have an older kid in the role of Dre, but then the movie wouldn't have been able to maintain the sense of innocence it now has.

Ultimately it's nothing that hasn't been seen before at least four times. But it's about time that kids get introduced to these plot tropes, and if they won't learn to wax on and wax off this time around, at least they will feel some motivation to hang up their jackets.

Derek McCaw

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