First of all, the title is a misnomer. This movie is not about karate at all but instead it's kung fu. A more appropriate title would have been The Kung Fu Kid, and yes, the title that was used in China when the film released. But since this is a "remake" of the 1984 film of the same name, the title had to remain. That major quibble aside, this is a decent attempt seeing as the first film is so iconic. I generally dislike remakes unless it brings something new to the table. Setting the story in Beijing, China and starring Jackie Chan as the wise master were two major plus points and the main reasons I was interested in watching this film.
Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moves with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) to Beijing as she relocates for her job. And from the first day in Beijing, Dre learns that he is completely out of his elements when he goes up against the school bullies. Dre is interested in Mei (Wenwen Han) and Cheng, the main leader of the bullies, doesn't like Dre mingling with anyone. One day, as the gang of bullies chase Dre through the tiny streets, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) comes upon them beating up Dre. From then onwards, Mr. Han takes up Xiao Dre as his pupil teaching him kung fu and how to avoid enemies.
There is one memorable sequence where Mr. Han takes Dre to a temple atop a mountain and the scenery and the visuals are spectacular. They comes across several people taking part in different forms of kung fu, especially memorable was a female martial artist balancing on one foot and trying to control a cobra. This also reminded me somehow of Kung Fu Panda and the temple atop a mountain and the secrets of kung fu that Po the Panda was trying to learn.
Unlike Po, Dre is a fast learner although he has to learn how to drop the attitude. There is the obligatory montage sequence where they both train and Mr. Han tries to teach Dre everything he knows. This is an extremely physical role and 12-year-old Jaden does a good job at it. The fight scenes are intense especially with the bullies and it's hard to watch knowing the news contains some many new stories of bullying in schools. It all comes to a head at a kung fu tournament where Dre goes up against his bullies and comes out alive at the other end. It's not a spoiler, just movie law.
This isn't the best movie made about kung fu. Just go back and watch the Jackie Chan filmography. He gives a subdued and understated performance here that comes across as very real. Jaden Smith has a long ways to go to compare to his dad, Will Smith, but he's got the chops if he picks the right roles. Overall, a solid film to watch home over the weekend especially for the setting. You'll want to visit China after this too.
Directed by Harald Zwart; Written by Christopher Murphey (screenplay) and Robert Mark Kamen (story); Cinematography by Roger Pratt; Music by James Horner