Studio filmmaking is so mediocre now, it’s almost startling on those rare occasions when dumb movies get released that have been elegantly crafted. Believe it or not, I mean this film, the frequently moving remake of the 1984 Ralph Macchio hit that almost defines 1980s pop culture. This version of The Karate Kid, transposed to China, opens with a cinematic economy even Hitchcock might admire: The camera roves an empty apartment, settling on a door lintel, where a young boy’s growth spurts have been marked and annotated. The final line almost indifferently notes the boy’s height, adding, “The year dad died.” But the melancholy lighting tells us that this is far from a neutral observation. Brought up to speed without a word of dialogue, the next five minutes introduce us to our main characters, whose flight to Beijing will plunge them into an exact parallel of the circumstances that beset Daniel-San and Mr. Miyagi in Okinawa back in the day. Coincidence or what?
The rest of the film isn’t always such a model of compressed storytelling, but director Harald Zwart, so stylishly vacuous in One Night at McCool’s, gives us camera flourishes in nearly every scene, and each trick has a convincing emotional tug attached to it. We watch Dre (Jaden Smith) surreptitiously spy on his forbidden girlfriend Meiying (Wenwen Han) practicing violin, the camera peering through an opposite half-open window, implying both secrecy and seclusion. And Zwart is adventurously scenic in a country that could have been merely exotic. From back alleys to mountaintop monasteries, he fills the screen with little pleasures. Despite ourselves, we feel involved.
And, of course, there’s Jackie Chan, king of cool. As Mr. Han, he gets a far deeper heartbreak to bear than Pat Morita did in the original, and it sharpens the relationship between him and young Dre. In the scene where Han breaks down, the usually clownish martial artist waxes on to real depths of poignancy.
Obviously, it ought to have been titled Kung Fu Kid, but the fight scenes are fun; the camera work is pretty. Guess it’s time to remake The Goonies.