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The Karate Kid (PG)

Ain't that a kick in the head

It is almost certainly a sign of my wasted youth, but the 1980s action heroes celebrated in this week's two remakes are altogether mysterious to me. I never watched the TV series of The A-Team, and I somehow contrived to avoid the 1984 original of The Karate Kid. "How on earth did you miss them?" someone asked me. Well, I was probably trying to have a life, but I can't be sure. Ignorance at least lends the experience a fresh perspective.

The Karate Kid turns out to be a family affair, produced by Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and starring their 12-year-old son Jaden, a Mini-Me of his dad. He plays Dre, reluctantly uprooted from his Detroit home to start a new life in Beijing. He's a cocky little squit, cheeking his mum (Taraji P Henson) and flirting with the pretty, virtuoso violinist at his new school; but he soon crashes down to earth when the school bully kicks his ass all over the playground. "PG" violence, by the way, seems to stand for "pretty gruelling", given that the punches sound like a training shoe smacking a side of beef. Only one thing for it: the kid must learn the ungentle art of kung fu from the local maintenance man, Mr Han, who will also teach his protégé a thing or two about obedience and respect. (So oughtn't the film to be called The Kung-Fu Kid instead?)

The deadly pace and the unappealing brattishness of Smith Jnr are mildly offset by the film's surprise positioning of China itself front and centre: forget the tyrannical oppression and feel the cultural history in its glimpses of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the lively new architecture of Beijing. At a time when Hollywood movies barely seem to be set anywhere in particular, this counts as a landmark. You get the feeling that the studio, Columbia, is prepared to bust a gut to court the lucrative Chinese market, even if it's still American fortitude and can-do bossing the screen.

What saves the film is another great Oriental institution by the name of Jackie Chan. As the Kid's kung-fu master, Chan is a hunched, recessive character nursing a private tragedy, though he retains a vigilant athleticism that you wouldn't care to trifle with. I don't think anyone in movies has ever swatted a fly so cunningly, and his dexterity in a fight with the Kid's tormentors is brilliantly displayed: he somehow uses the bullies' flailing arms and legs to beat themselves up. Brawling has never looked so much like ballet as when Chan is around, and if he's not so nimble as of old he's still the funniest exponent of the chop-socky arts.

Talking of old, you feel the minutes drift like aeons here. How Harald Zwart, the director, justified bulking the film up to 140 minutes defies understanding. Even Inception looks trim in comparison, and that has about six different plots going at once. The press notes are pleased to tell us that Mr Zwart is fluent in three languages, but plainly the phrase "get a move on" is unavailable in any of them.