There’s a good movie just under the surface of Harald Zwart’s remake of The Karate Kid. There are some great fight scenes, beautiful location photography and even some genuinely emotional moments, but they’re weighed down by layers of tedious fat in the beginning. The movie takes forever to get going, although once it does you might be willing to forget the turgid first half.

Jaden Smith is Dre, a Detroit kid dragged by his single mom to China. Once there he becomes the target of a group of kung fu bullies, as well as the soulmate of a young Chinese girl. The local handy man/kung fu master (Jackie Chan) takes pity on the kid and trains him in the ways of martial arts so that he can face his tormentors in the big tournament and maybe even win the heart of that girl. The skeleton is the same as the Ralph Macchio/Pat Morita movie from 1984, and this new version handpicks a few reference points along the way, but The Karate Kid could just be The Next Next Karate Kid for as little as it feels like a straight remake. Which is a great thing – the film has its own feel and vibe and characters. Zwart, working from a script by Christopher Murphey, has delivered what feels like the ultimate remake – similar enough to be familiar (and to be considered a rip off if it wasn’t a remake) but different enough to have its own reason for existing.

That reason for existing may be to drive tourism to China. The film is partially financed by the China Film Group, and it plays like a love letter to the last great Communist threat (it even presents electricity rationing as an environmental effort). Not that some of the love isn’t earned; cinematographer Roger Pratt gets some breathtaking shots of the Chinese countryside. Yeah, it’s cheesy that Jaden and Jackie would train atop the Great Wall, but it looks awesome. Still, there are a lot of weird political elements at play here. One of the great human rights abusers gets essentially a free pass, although no one could have really expected a film like this to tackle the tough issues of a police state. But the fact that Jaden and his single movie mom, Taraji P Henson, move from Detroit to a better life in Communist China is an intriguing concept – how many movies (that weren’t dystopian scifi) have been made that featured people leaving America for better opportunities, and that present Americans as picked on underdogs? 

But there’s a darker side to it all that may have escaped everybody involved; by aging the lead down to 12 and bringing all of his opponents to tweenhood with him, The Karate Kid 2010 presents a weird and bleak picture of maniacal, ruthless little Chinese murder puppets. In the original Karate Kid the bad guys of the Cobra Kai dojo were teens, and there’s a certain hormonal aggressiveness and anger that feels natural from high school kids. When that same aggressiveness and anger is coming from kids without pubes it feels like something far more sinister and horrible. It’s not hard to see the faces of Chinese youth slave labor when looking at lead baddie Cheng and his pals, or to imagine these kids as the sort of ruthless Commie killers envisioned by the John Birch Society. 

Those Chinese bullies play for keeps, and so do the film’s fight scenes. The Karate Kid features some really heavy kid-on-kid violence, complete with instant playbacks of the most bone breaking moments. There’s even a scene where Jackie Chan gets to beat up a half dozen 12 year olds. In some ways the kiddie violence in this PG rated film feels more intense than the violence in Kick-Ass, which while more explicit and deadly was also more cartoony. Here when baddie Cheng is ordered by his evil teacher to break Jaden’s leg there’s real threat and menace, and it’s kind of scary because it feels like it has an impact, something not as present in Hit Girl’s over the top murder sprees. The action choreography is top notch, and there are a lot of scenes where it looks like kids are really getting very hurt. Those not enamored of Jaden Smith’s performance will relish an early playground scene where he gets his ass brutally handed to him, and is slammed onto naked concrete again and again. 

But those scenes are too few. There are some very great training scenes as well, but they’re also a little too sparse. The movie clocks in at a punishing two hours and twenty minutes, and at times it feels like an epic; by the end of the movie you’d be excused for expecting Jaden Smith to have hit 30. There’s just a ton of flabby nonsense here, especially in the opening. It takes way too long to hook up the new American with the crotchety old Chinaman, and after the third time the bullies deliver a beating or the third time Jaden has a meet-cute with the Chinese girl or the third time he and his mom have a moment you feel like we’ve all pretty much got it already, and you just want the movie to get going. Even once Jaden begins his training the film can’t resist breaking away for interminable wheel-spinning. 

Cutting about twenty or thirty minutes would do this film wonders. “Wax on, wax off” has been replaced with “Jacket on, jacket off,” and the moment when Jaden finally understands what the repetitive motion has been about is almost amazing. Zwart milks delight and wonder out of a number of cliched moments, and you have to appreciate a director who can take concepts that were hoary and worn thin twenty years ago and make them feel alive. If only he had figured out how to pace his movie so the entire thing could feel that way… Still, there are enough great moments to almost recommend the movie in general; a scene where Chan and Smith travel to a mountain-top temple to drink from the mythic Dragon Well is awesome, and filled with tiny moments of astounding martial arts mastery. There’s a scene where a kung fu monk balances on one leg atop a gargoyle perched thousands of feet in the air, slowly rocking back and forth with a poised cobra. It’s a moment where the fantasy of wuxia almost touches the reality of street level living, and it’s magic. More moments like this, fewer of Jaden being a cocky little shit and The Karate Kid would be a classic.

Speaking of Jaden’s cocky little shit routine, I like that the film doesn’t go down the road of having him integrate his unique American hip hop moves into kung fu. The movie’s fairly reverential to the martial art, and everybody treats it incredibly seriously. But all the reverence in the world can’t make Jaden Smith a better lead; mostly a boy-shaped void, Smith only comes alive in scenes where he’s obviously imitating his famously charismatic dad. Young Dre is a spoiled little brat, and Smith feels like he knows that inside and out. A stronger lead would have really elevated the film to another level. There are other niggling casting problems – the bad kids feel generic, and Taraji P Henson is playing some broad farce of her own – but those are minor.

Almost offsetting Jaden is a very strong performance by Jackie Chan. He gets to actually act, something that he has been rarely required to do in recent years, and he pulls it off spectacularly. His Mr. Han has a tragic backstory that plucky young Jaden will help him through, but you almost don’t mind the mechanical nature of that plotline because of the feeling Chan brings to the proceedings. It’s not an Oscar turn by any means, but it’s an unexpected blast of humanity.

The most puzzling thing about The Karate Kid is why it’s called The Karate Kid. I kept expecting the film to rationalize its title somehow – hell, having Henson, whose character can’t tell karate from kung fu, call Smith ‘my little karate kid’ would have been enough – but it never does. Considering how much respect Zwart et al show kung fu, I don’t get why they left the title as is. It’s like calling a Robin Hood movie The Gunfight at the OK Corral

I wish someone had realized that 130 or 140 minutes was just too long for this film. With twenty or thirty minutes cut out The Karate Kid could be a grade A piece of entertainment; at this lumbering length it’s too logey to truly compete in the tournament.

7 out of 10