The Karate Kid featuring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan starts off with a considerably sincere showcase of what the movie is all about. From the pop music in its opening credits to the kind of shots it utilizes early on, it’s clearly meant for the young crowd who likes hearty stories and happy endings. This commercially entertaining remake works well for its audience while not being an entire rip-off of the 1984 original. It keeps its spirit alive, except for one disappointing aspect: The Karate Kid is actually The Kung Fu Kid.
View Karate Kid photo slideshow courtesy of Columbia Pictures
The biggest cinematic sin committed here is its misnamed title that sets it somewhere in between an appealing popcorn flick and a big cinematic blasphemy.
Read Jaden Smith Learns Kung Fu in Karate Kid Remake
The story of Dre migrating to China with his mother, along with his learning of kung fu, renders a fine mainstream treat. But sadly, this movie rides too much on the name of the classic Karate Kid film that it practically uses its franchise just to maximize all the hype and good branding. While making a remake of an old movie is something acceptable, this new martial arts flick for kids could have been more respectful of the film’s legacy by either living up with it (within the karate world) or deviating from its original title to keep up with the new, updated plot. In so doing, it wouldn’t look and sound so funny, questionable, and dumb that it’s a Karate Kid movie using kung fu. In fact, they can even use the original movie’s title as a “sub-title” if they really want to use the brand and recuperate on the most likely huge amount they paid to use the franchise.
The Karate Kid remains a feel good story that works. It succeeds as a crowd-pleasing treat that captures the general charm and humanity of the 1984 original. While it doesn’t surpass what its predecessor has already etched in film history, it takes the same old story and feeds it back with some change in scenery and targeted demographic. It radiates the light-hearted buoyancy of the original with Jaden Smith now stepping in as the new Ralph Macchio and Jackie Chan as the new Pat Morita.
When disregarding its title’s ultimate booboo, what makes the movie succeed in its own terms is that, amidst its clichéd plot, it manages to earn that same winning spirit of the influential classic. This formulaic but savvy reboot makes a good family movie.
While it is totally predictable, itproves that the formula still has life as this new one captures the good emotional beats of the original. From the simple emotional good-bye scene between Dre’s Detroit friend who gives him the skateboard to the gripping fight scene in the end, the movie pays enough respect to the tradition and nostalgia of the first Karate Kid. It may not be as good as the old one, but it reasonably engages with enough heart.
The bountiful travelogue opportunities in China also add to its button-pushing crowd-pleaser demeanor. Director Harald Zwart features historic Chinese ancient structures sitting right next to new architectural wonders. The panoramic vistas and well-choreographed fight scenes reinterpret Karate Kid without straying too far from what the original offered during its time.
The fight scenes make a good playground to its characters. The climactic showdown works in the same fashion as the 1984 movie where the face-off between the bully and the bullied feels predictable, but it interestingly doesn’t feel calculated. It gets the general audience’s attention for an emotional investment until the underdog reigns supreme. Even the simple cliché moments surprisingly validates the kung fu showdown, complete with a deciding slow-motion kick. The choice of shots and emotional bearing on the characters works well for the story. The direction, acting, production design and cinematography become the saving graces of this blasphemously titled movie.
Working together in the spirit of kung fu, Dre and Mr. Han embody naturally good chemistry. They carry the movie well: a brash American boy trying to fit in Beijing and a queerly reserved Chinese maintenance man seemingly living a lonely life on his own.
The two main characters ground the movie in between the drama, action, and comedy. While they don’t exactly match the depth and fortuitous rapport of Macchio and Morita, their partnership brings a heart-filled depiction of their own.
Smith impresses with his small frame sculpted with martial arts training. He looks very natural on screen and his charm carries the movie all the way towards a pleasing end. Amidst the frequently annoying awareness on Jackie Chan’s struggle to get rid of his Americanized tongue to speak Chinese without any English twang, he still generally works well as Mr. Han. He brings good depth to his inner struggle as a character where his emotional baggage fills up to the brim in the car drama sequence. At some point, he seems to go overboard, but the direction and editing effectively handles his breakdown with emotional shots showing him heads down on the steering wheel.
The characterizations of the other roles are not given enough value. Dre’s mother played by Taraji Henson is completely two-dimensional and flat like the rest, with the exception of the bullying boys who get their change of heart by the movie’s end. The humanity between Dre and Mr. Han is fine, but the movie could have benefited more if at least, there’s a simple establishment of Dre investing in one emotional bonding scene with his mother, instead of just mere comic elements brought to their scenes together. His potential love interest Meiying played by Wen Wen Han makes a good addition to the puppy love angle of the story. Dre’s kung fu opponent delivers a fine performance to keep the other side of the story’s spectrum a well-rendered aspect of the movie as well.