Like a lot of movie kids, 11-year-old Dre (Jaden Smith) keeps track of his growth by a series of tics on a doorframe. As The Karate Kid begins, he’s looking unhappily at this record of his life so far, the camera following his gaze, year by year, event by event: “First tooth lost,” “first home run.” When he reaches the marker reading, “Daddy died,” his brief back story is apparently complete.
The movie doesn’t explain this loss or Dre’s ongoing dislocation, but instead goes directly to the next plot point, that is, Dre and his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) are headed to Beijing. She’s been transferred, and she does her best to sound grateful and enthused for this chance to start a “new life in a magical new land.” Following a seconds-long goodbye to friends and family (one of Dre’s classmates hands him his skateboard, a carry-on emblem of Americanness), they ride to the airport past graffitied walls and foreclosure signs. You see the point: the land they’re leaving behind is distinctly un-magical.
Unsurprisingly, Dre resists the change anyway: he refuses to learn Chinese with his mom using her laptop and doesn’t want to play in the park across the street from their new apartment (the film doesn’t make a big deal of it, but the first kid he meets is a blond American transplant [Luke Carberry], underlining that like big cities in the States, this one has a multi-national population). When Dre first sees his new apartment building, his upturned eyes betray a subtle blend of wonder and desolation. (Throughout the film, Smith proves a remarkably expressive performer, and if it’s plain he’s picked up more than a few moves and expressions from his dad, he also infuses this kid—alternately grumpy, selfish, and obnoxious, as well as earnest and sympathetic—with impressive nuance.) But even as he surveys the crowded street and institutional-looking apartment complex, the film is setting up to challenge expectations: when Sherry is dismayed to find there’s no hot water and sends Dre in search of the superintendent, it turns out that the building is not actually deficient but green, with hot water available at the flip of a switch.
More importantly, the process by which Dre learns this lesson involves his first encounter with the sullen super, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). As this film’s Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), Mr. Han is initially reluctant to mentor Dre, put off when he spots the kid disrespecting his mother, specifically by not hanging up his jacket. Mr. Han (who is an expert in kung fu, not karate, but okay, there’s a brand name at stake) will use this simple-seeming action—picking up the jacket and putting it on the coat-rack—as this film’s “wax on-wax off,” and Dre spends long hours rehearsing it until the big-music moment when he discovers the true meaning and potential of his movements.
Dre is inspired to seek instruction from Mr. Han is, of course, by a local bully. Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) first spots Dre in the park, his insta-mean-face prompted by Dre’s flirtations with Meiying (Wenwen Han). The reaction is immediate and frankly brutal: Cheng bears down on Dre, hitting, kicking, and generally walloping the smaller kid—and Dre is smaller than everyone, including Meiying—as the other kids watch in subdued horror. Only Meiiying tries to stop the beat-down, which only makes Cheng more intent: a pile-on of close, energetically mobile shots underscore both his ferocity and Dre’s alternating spunk and pain.
When it’s over, Dre’s left with a black eye (though you’d guess he’d have broken ribs or even a concussion, based on the scene’s PG-pushing violence) that he hides with his mom’s makeup and a pulled-down baseball cap (Sherry is less than perceptive when the script calls for it). At school, however, he has no cover, as Cheng and his minions skulk in shadows or stride down hallways, ever ready to menace Dre again and again. (That said, Cheng and company have reasons for their surliness, namely, their kung fu teacher, Master Li [Rong-guang Yu], who instructs them to have “no mercy” on opponents, drilling them in formation and relentlessly, a method that good teacher Mr. Han immediately identifies as “bad teaching.”)
Dre is resourceful even if he doesn’t anticipate consequences very well: but even his mistakes have a potty purpose: when he executes a revenge that’s satisfying for about four seconds, the resulting chase scene through hectic streets offers a bit of baby parkouring and the expected intervention by Mr. Han. Dre is caught and smashed to the ground, left to watch through blurry POV shots as Mr. Han uses the bad boys’ bodies against each other, in a very Jackie-Channish spate of frankly delightful entertainment.
Seeing this, you realize that the film has more than one idea in play: the formulaic plot provides little bits of spotlight for what both Chan and Smith do very well (and very differently), and their subsequent bonding scenes are, surprisingly, increasingly charming. Even the moment when Mr. Han reveals the tragedy that has left him so alone—clichéd as the plot point may be—is rendered in a way that showcases each performer’s strengths. By the time they’re performing an elaborate kung fu shadow-play (and Sherry shows up just in time to provide a happy-tearful reaction shot), you know it’s over the top, but… okay again. Mr. Han and Dre deserve each other, in a good way.
Dre’s other growing-up plot, the romance with Meiying, who happens to be a violin prodigy, is equally trite but less convincing. If there are cultural differences and race anxieties hovering nearby, the film lets you worry about them, and focuses instead on Dre and Meiying’s immediate connection and shared dilemmas. Both are determined students and good kids, wanting to please their elders. Meiying’s father and teacher expect her to be perfect, and Dre, having learned Mr. Han’s lesson—“Everything is kung fu”—is thrilled to praise her excellence no matter what else happens around them. He may not be a karate kid, exactly, but he’s definitely a cool kid.