The Karate Kid (2010)

6 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember reading an online article about a project in development—a Jaden Smith vehicle called “The Kung Fu Kid.” I also remember rolling my eyes at the title, so I decided not to look further into it. Then when I saw the trailer for a Jaden Smith vehicle called “The Karate Kid,” I thought to myself, “Aw come on, really? They’re remaking ‘The Karate Kid?’ Jaden Smith is Daniel and Jackie Chan is Mr. Miyagi?” But you know, you shouldn’t judge before you see the movie. In other words, you don’t have to see a movie, but don’t pretend like you know right away that it’s going to suck. And I was surprised to discover that this modern version of the wonderful (and iconic) 1984 film, which originally starred Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, is actually a well-made, entertaining film. I’m glad to say that it’s more enjoyable (and more watchable) than any of the original film’s three sequels.

It’s also a pretty good remake. It carries over familiar elements of the original, but is able to tell a new story and allow certain differences that allow it to work as a stand-alone film. Maybe it does share the same sort of hokey sports-drama story that the original sort of introduced to the big screen for the first time in 1984; but when it works, just let yourself be entertained, if you’re willing to accept what’s in store for you.

There is one major problem, though. Despite being called “The Karate Kid,” karate is not the martial art that is being taught here. Here, it’s kung fu—because that’s kind of false advertising, calling a film “The Karate Kid” when karate has nothing to do with the story, and despite that cheesy title I remember reading, maybe it could have just stayed with the title “The Kung Fu Kid.” Ah well, what can you do? People would’ve attacked it at the start either way.

In the original film, Ralph Macchio played 16-year-old Daniel Larusso who moved with his single mother from New Jersey to California, where he has trouble fitting in. In the remake, Jaden Smith plays 12-year-old Dre Parker who moves with his widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson) from America to China, where he is unable to speak the language, doesn’t understand the culture, and of course has trouble fitting in. He does meet one girl, Meiying, who takes an interest in Dre (she likes his hair, particularly) and thankfully does speak English. But their little puppy-love attraction doesn’t do well with the jealous school bully, Cheng, who immediately doesn’t like Dre and beats him up on their first encounter. Like the original film, this bully hangs with a group of friends, and they all study under a psychotic martial-arts instructor (like I said, the original was karate while this one is kung fu) and they’re taught to fight, fight, fight.

When the beatings get to be too much for poor Dre, his unexpected rescuer turns out to be the apartment maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who as it turns out knows kung fu. Mr. Han agrees to talk with the bullies’ kung fu teacher, but because it doesn’t go well, Mr. Han arranges for Dre to fight the bullies in an upcoming kung fu tournament. It would seem cruel, but Mr. Han decides to actually teach Dre “real kung fu” to prepare for it.

In the original film, the teacher, Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi, managed to teach Daniel karate by showing him what can come from manual labor (for example, waxing the car (“wax on, wax off”) enables Daniel to block hits, as it turns out). Here, because Mr. Han noticed Dre’s defiance to his mother for never hanging up his jacket, and so he constantly has him hang it up, put it down, pick it up, and do the same thing over and over again. But as with the original film, there’s a secret method to doing this.

There isn’t anything perfectly fresh about this remake, mostly because much of the material was used in the original. And being a modern sports-drama, it’s fairly easy to figure out whether or not Dre is going to be able to beat the bullies in the tournament, earn respect from his peers, and so on. But there are some neat story aspects that keep it interesting, mainly involving the styles of kung fu. We get a lot of training sequences, all of which are amusing and even insightful (and because Jackie Chan is playing the teacher, you know that what you’re seeing is mostly true), and we even get to see the origins of kung fu, where Dre is introduced to a certain psychology within the art. For example, he notices an exercise involving a woman and a snake—is the snake controlling the woman, is the woman controlling the snake, or are they working as one? It’s a unique psychological element that Dre can of course learn to his advantage, and I think that’s what made the final battle more interesting, because by this time Dre has learned the art all too well and is able to use this ability to play to his opponent’s understanding.

I mentioned that “The Karate Kid” is a well-made movie and it is impressive, particularly in its visuals. Taking place in Beijing, China, you get a lot of great Chinese locations, including the Forbidden City where Dre goes on a field trip in one scene. And you also get the mountains and the Great Wall, which add to the nicely-photographed visual style.

Jaden Smith is a likable kid with a natural screen presence. The movie is a vehicle set up by his parents, Will and Jada Pinkett who serve as producers, but he deserves it. Jackie Chan delivers one of his best performances as Mr. Han, who is actually more complex of a character than you might expect. Mr. Han is not merely as eccentric as Mr. Miyagi was; he’s surlier and more bitter because of some tragic incident that in one scene, he ultimately tells Dre about. (That scene, by the way, is a very powerful scene and it leads to a perfect conclusion that has to do with that same psychology I mentioned above.) Chan is able to pull off a dramatic moment and it’s one of those rare moments that I didn’t see Chan in a performance.

The film is not without its flaws. I already mentioned a sort of lack of freshness in certain elements, but there are some parts that seem overstuffed, including the puppy-love relationship between Dre and Meiying. And admittedly, it is sort of unsettling seeing Dre get beat up brutally by the bullies in the early parts of the film, and also to see Mr. Han able to cause the kids to beat each other up thanks to some clever maneuvers. It probably has to do with the age, but seeing kids get beaten even by each other is not easy to watch. In fact, I’m surprised this film got away with a PG rating; the violence is a bit much for a family-friendly film.

But for the most part, “The Karate Kid” is a well-done remake to an iconic predecessor—keeping nostalgia alive for adults who are familiar with the original film, but not annoying for those aren’t familiar with the source. It’s a nicely-done, entertaining sports-drama that once again shows you don’t judge a book by its cover (or its title).

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