It's been a long time since I've heard an audience cheer as lustily when a movie ended as at a recent screening of The Karate Kid. That sort of thing shouldn't influence a critic, or else some very stupid movies would earn rave reviews.
This is different; I was cheering along with everyone else.
Welcome to summertime's The Blind Side, an irresistibly feel-good flick about an underdog having his day, buoyed by heartland values (even if it's China's heartland) and sport as a metaphor for life. A bit cheesy, to be sure, but so was the 1984 original.
What's fun is how the new Karate Kid embraces and vastly improves the cliches, keeping the plot cleverly updated for a generation that never heard of Ralph Macchio. For once, the term "reimagining" isn't an alibi for exploiting a familiar title; it's an apt description of how director Harald Zwart tweaks the original's strengths into something better.
First is giving the title role to scarily talented Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness), who doesn't need his father around to carry a movie. Yet Will Smith is hereditarily in every move the child makes — the playfulness in his step and line deliveries, the instinctive likability and expressions that are eerily identical to dad. It isn't stunt casting because the kid has chops.
The underdog now is Dre Parker (Smith), an unwilling immigrant to China with his mother (Taraji P. Henson), who has transferred there to work. Dre is quickly viewed as a weak outsider by a gang of kung fu students led by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who bully him mercilessly.
One attack is thwarted by Dre's apartment handyman Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a martial arts master who promises to teach the boy kung fu so he can defend his honor in a tournament against his tormentors. Chan is surprisingly effective replacing the late Pat Morita, even if one overlong confessional is a shameless Oscar plug and a disposable detour from the original's path.
Through Chan and the Beijing locales, Zwart also wisely smooths over the first film's stereotyping of Morita's Mr. Miyagi and Asian culture in general. There is genuine awe and respect for China's marvels in Roger Pratt's cinematography, at times too languid. Mr. Han's lessons in discipline and self-control go beyond fortune cookie philosophy. Dre's crush on a classmate (Wenwen Han) is a sweet bridge between cultures, balancing out the bad guys while distracting from them.
Screenwriter Christopher Murphey smartly alters a few of the original's signature moves. Mr. Miyagi's "wax-on, wax-off" regimen is now Dre training by taking off and hanging up his jacket — for a good reason and the same lessons. It's easy to smile when Mr. Han is spied waxing his own car, or using a shortcut to stop a pesky housefly when Miyagi's chopsticks idea won't work.
And, yes, in his supreme moment of crisis, Dre resorts to the "flying crane" move that Macchio immortalized. The story still ends at precisely the right moment with the freeze-frame and blast of trumpets every post-Rocky saga of the '80s deserved. But like everything else in The Karate Kid, it seems cooler now than then.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.