Audiences might be surprised to attend the multiplex this weekend and not see Soleil Moon Frye, Andrew Dice Clay, or Toni Basil—2010 seems to be a peak in Hollywood's We Love the 80s phase, what with blast-from-the-past comedy Hot Tub Time Machine, McGyver parody MacGruber, and now a Karate Kid remake and A-Team adaptation filling screens (Bill Simmons recently linked this trend to the resurgence of a Lakers-Celtics rivalry—dare I dream of a Mets World Series victory?) Of course, a lot of this is coincidence. For example, MacGruber is the product of SNLers who were of formative age during their target's heyday, while The Karate Kid has been retooled to appeal not for those with fond memories of that decade but for a new generation very likely blissfully unaware of the "classic" (cough) original altogether.
There are also far more cynical reasons this Karate Kid was made. Co-produced by China Film Group, much of the movie concerns 12 year-old Dre's culture shock upon being relocated from Detroit to Beijing—mom (Taraji P. Henson) works in the auto industry—with Come See China! Tourist advert shots of the Burgeoning City and the Beautiful Countryside smoothing the transition. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are also co-producers, which means that Dre is played by son Jaden Smith, who shouldn't have been thrust into the spotlight. Granted, the kid's age accords with the savvy marketing strategy of courting the ever-more-powerful Disney-bred tween demographic, but just because he's the son of Hollywood's most bankable actor doesn't mean he should be anywhere near a camera. Dad's aw-shucks arrogance can be discerned in several of Smith's reactions—and there's one nice moment when he exclaims "Wow!" after discovering the martial arts moves he didn't know he had in him—but otherwise he's just as good guy-dull.
Jackie Chan surprisingly picks up the slack in the Mr. Miyagi role as Mr. Han, kung fu (not karate—brand familiarity trumps all) mentor to Dre after the middle-schooler runs afoul of a bunch of viciously trained bullies who look down on his flirtation with Meiying (Wenwen Han). Achy and downcast, Chan slightly oversells how much he's aged since his own 80s heyday, but his performance is still more moving than Smith's from-mouse-to-man journey (Ralph Macchio's whiney turn in the original is actually missed here). After years of making many stupid films in Hollywood, The Karate Kid could be Chan's chance to pass the martial arts torch with an air of gravitas, but the remake's idea of international exchange is considerably less than sophisticated. The original was an American tale in cornpone style in which the bond between Maccio's Danny and Pat Morita's Miyagi represented a coming together of cultural outsiders—Danny a California transplant and Miyagi a Japanese-American disrespected by the country he once served. Here Dre learns patience, respect, and ass-kicking via Eastern tradition even as the film's aesthetic reprocesses that tradition as American-made excess and ADD, overlong on one hand and hyperactively constructed on the other. The climactic showdown, featuring a lame Dre dispatching his unfair fighting enemies, even employs a tournament scoreboard to instantly replay the very action that transpired just moments before, a further sign that the presentation of professional sports in the late television age has begun to influence how sports are presented in the movies. Young 'uns might not recognize the fill-in-the-blank changes from Karate Kid '84 to '10 ("Wax on, wax off" becomes "Jacket on, jacket off," the crane kick becomes snake-charming hypnosis, etc), but you'd think they'd possess a modicum of short-term memory.