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The Karate Kid

The Fresh Prince of Beijing

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars.

The best that can be said about The Karate Kid, a bloated but diverting remake of the 1984 original, is that most of its two-and-a-half hour running time reflects a near-flawless imitation. The names and faces have changed, as has the setting — with China replacing sunny Southern California — but the story is unmistakably the same.

For the newcomers: Dre, transplanted from Detroit to Beijing without so much as a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese, is the new kid on the block, suffering his way through a hard-knocks initiation. (In the original, Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio, arrived in L.A. by way of New Jersey.) Dre commits the dangerous sin of talking to a girl the schoolyard bully seems to fancy, and his reward is a black eye.

That doesn’t sit well with Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the next-door handyman who watches Dre come home from school, each day bringing a fresh set of bruises. After a time — just long enough for the wiry, athletic Dre to take an interest in kung fu — Han rescues the boy, teaching him self-defense and the basics of manhood.

It doesn’t take a student of the original to guess there’s going to be a showdown, and the new Karate Kid delivers, pitting Dre against his chief tormentor (whose only job is to punch, kick and scowl his way into our bad graces) in a tournament. Until then, we are invited to giggle at Han’s unorthodox lessons, and marvel at the profundity of his seemingly simple philosophy.

All of this is handled deftly enough by the director, Harald Zwart, who erases lingering memories of last year’s Pink Panther 2 with a handsome (albeit self-indulgent) remake that makes the most of its locations, allowing Dre to train atop the Great Wall and visit the Forbidden City. The tournament is equally well constructed, a triumph of artful choreography.

Dre is played by Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett, and though he has an engaging screen presence — a natural, playful way with the camera, as impressive as his high-flying kung fu — his emotional range is neither as polished nor as developed as Macchio’s was. (An unfair comparison, perhaps: Macchio was 23 when he starred in the first Karate Kid.) At 11, Smith remains a work in progress, but the flashes of promise he shows here suggest a star power as luminous as his father’s.

In the Mr. Miyagi role — or Han, as he is now called — Chan submits a performance that is uncharacteristically nuanced, and his reticence serves him well. The key to any Karate Kid movie — this is the fifth — is the relationship between teacher and student, and though Chan’s fleet-footed mentor doesn’t take you by surprise, the way Noriyuki “Pat” Morita did in the original, he is mostly credible as the aging, broken-down guru thrust into the thick of a fight he never picked.

Does the new movie surpass or even match its predecessor? No. It takes the same story and feeds it back to us more or less intact, with only a handful of superficial alterations.

There is a single scene, beautifully shot, in which Han reveals to Dre the tragedy of his past, and in that moment, we catch a glimpse of what might have been — a moving fable reimagined, with a resonance all its own, earned more than borrowed. It’s over in an instant — unlike the rest of the movie, which sometimes drags — and it comes as an inconvenient reminder of the freshness we’re missing.