The Karate Kid, Harald Zwart, 140 mins (PG)
The A-Team, Joe Carnahan, 119 mins (12A)

Mr and Mrs Will Smith give their son a film to star in – and it's enough to make a grown-up wince

Some parents might take their son to see a film on his birthday, but Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have gone one better: they've put their son in a film of his own.

In the most flagrant case of nepotism since George W Bush got his dad's old job in the White House, Mr and Mrs Smith have produced a remake of 1984's The Karate Kid, and cast their son Jaden in the title role.

If only they'd remembered how ungrateful children can be. Not an actor to use facial expressions unless he absolutely has to, Smith Jr looks thoroughly bored by Mom and Pop's extravagant gift. I can't say I blame him.

The film opens with a fatherless Detroit kid named Dre (Smith) moving to Beijing with his mother (Taraji P Henson). He's immediately targeted by some school bullies, and the only way to deter them is to compete in a kung fu tournament, having been tutored by his building's handyman, Mr Han (a muted Jackie Chan). This raises a number of questions. Why is the film called The Karate Kid when it's all about kung fu? And what job could Dre's mother have had in a Detroit car factory that led to her being transferred to China? Alas, the film can't find room to answer these questions in its 140-minute running time, nor can it fit in any surprises, any obstacles in Dre's path, or any depth to the characters.

The cinematography gives it a nicely worn, lived-in feel, and there's nothing much that young cinema-goers could object to, bladder-testing running time aside. But there is quite a bit to make accompanying grown-ups wince. For one thing, there's the suggestion that if a shrimpy American has a few weeks' martial arts training, he can defeat Chinese children who have been learning kung fu their whole lives. And then there's the issue of Smith's age. Ralph Macchio was in his twenties when he made the original Karate Kid, and he was playing a 17 year old. Smith's character is 12, so we have the queasy experience of seeing the tournament's spectators cheering to the rafters when one pre-teen kicks another in the head. Finally, there's a closing song with guest vocals by, yes, Jaden Smith. Guess who's getting a debut album for his next birthday?

This week's other flashback to the mid-1980s is The A-Team, a weekend TV favourite which seems to have been in development as a film ever since the show was canned in 1987. An action comedy about four US commandos who have been framed for war crimes, it stars Liam Neeson as Hannibal, The Hangover's Bradley Cooper as Face, District 9's Sharlto Copley as Murdock, and Quinton Jackson as BA Baracus. And if those character names don't mean anything to you, be warned: like so many big-screen treatments of television programmes, The A-Team assumes that you already love its characters so much that any background information would be superfluous.

On one level, it's a load of tosh. All that happens is that the Team executes a series of madly impractical raids which would require unlimited resources, superhuman prescience, and a temporary suspension of the laws of physics. And, thanks to the frenetic editing and the wall-to-wall CGI, you may, if you're really concentrating, follow approximately two-thirds of what's going on.

But at least The A-Team is conscious of how daft it is. It doesn't try to be anything except fast, noisy, mindless Friday-night fun, and it accomplishes that mission with relish. I know it's not saying much, but next to the Starsky & Hutch and Dukes of Hazzard films, it's a triumph

Next Week:

Nicholas watches Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky make beautiful music

Also Showing: 01/08/2010

Down Terrace (85 mins, 15)

The Royle Family meets The Godfather in this zero-budget black comedy (above) set almost entirely in a cluttered Brighton house. In a sense, it's the piquant tale of an immature 34-year-old who still lives with his stifling parents, but the twist is that all concerned are career criminals. They lie and murder as readily as they make a cup of tea, so the hilariously bathetic bickering is seasoned with the growing recognition that you wouldn't want to meet any of them in a dark alley. The performances are exquisite, the folky soundtrack adds a melancholy air, and the protagonists are a world away from the sharp-suited, mockney gangsters of most British crime films. A treat from Ben Wheatley, the director and co-writer, and Robin Hill, the film's star and co-writer, both alumni of TV's Ideal and The Wrong Door.

South of the Border (78 mins, 15)

In this sub-Michael Moore documentary, Oliver Stone schmoozes with some South American presidents, and learns that they're not quite the anti-US Hitlers that the dullards at Fox News make them out to be. It's well-meant, but when you see Stone having a kickabout with Bolivia's Evo Morales and getting Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to go for a bike ride, you can't help but feel that a little less back-slapping and a little more investigating would have helped him make a stronger case.

Beautiful Kate (101 mins, 15)

A writer (Ben Mendelsohn) drives to an outback ranch to visit his dying father (Bryan Brown), triggering memories of the brother and sister who were killed when he was a teenager. This intimate Australian drama is sensitively acted, but the numerous, soft-focus flashbacks don't contain the shattering revelations they keep promising.

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Slightly amusing film about four men's hapless lives on Iran's northern border, "the land of heartbreaks and tractors". There's some striking scenery – and you certainly get time to look at it.

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Whimsical documentary following Gruff Rhys, lead singer of the Super Furry Animals, around Wales and South America.

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