The Karate Kid is very much a worthy counterpart to the 1984 film on which it’s based, not only in terms of story, but also in terms of quality; the excitement, humor, warmth, and themes of friendship, maturity, and overcoming adversity have been left intact, and better still, there’s no sense that any of it has been cheapened or simplified for the sake of appealing to a mass audience. The only exception, and I’m really just nitpicking here, is a glorious but contrived aerial shot of martial arts training directly on the Great Wall of China, the helicopter camera zooming around Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith as they pose dramatically. If there was ever an image that belonged in a Chinese tourism commercial, this would be it.
A more substantial criticism is that, because this is such a faithful remake, there isn’t much it can do to surprise us. Anyone familiar with the 1984 film will know exactly how this new version will play out, from the main character’s awkward arrival at the start to the climactic tournament at the end. There is a bit of an inconsistency; because it takes place in China, the featured martial art is kung fu, not karate, so the title is technically inaccurate. There’s also the convenience of all the important characters being able to speak English, if not fluently, then just enough to get their point across. But it’s all done so well that we may find ourselves suppressing the desire to look for flaws and make comparisons. What would be the point? Remake or not, this movie stands entirely on its own as a great entertainment, not just as a sports drama and a spectacle but also as a coming-of-age story, which is just as charming and insightful as it was twenty-six years ago.
Smith plays twelve-year-old Dre Parker, who’s forced to move from Detroit to Beijing with his mother (Taraji P. Henson). He doesn’t much care for it, although he does immediately develop a crush on a good-natured girl named Mei Ying (Han Wenwen), a violin prodigy. Unfortunately, this introduces him to the sadistic school bully, Cheng (Wang Zhenwei), who quickly and brutally takes him down in full view of the other kids. How did he become so aggressive? A visit to a local kung fu class explains everything: Cheng’s teacher, Master Li (Rongguang Yu), has taught him to be merciless when fighting his enemies. Mercy, he says, is for the weak. Dre, both small-statured and a foreigner, is considered a weakling. The idea that the underdog is separated by culture as well as by status is something the original film never had the chance to explore. It’s a welcome addition.
So is Jackie Chan, who takes the reins from the late Pat Morita and transforms Mr. Miyagi into Mr. Han, a reclusive janitor who agrees to train Dre for an upcoming kung fu tournament. After his disastrous starring role in The Spy Next Door, I had my doubts that Chan would be able to pull this off. I was happily proven wrong; this is his most mature and compelling performance to date, having been given the opportunity to genuinely act and not merely be a goofy action star. We see range. We see depth. We can conceivably feel something for his character. And for once, the kung fu moves he built his reputation on are actually in service of the story. He’s not a stuntman showing off – he’s a wise elder trying to make a point, and just like with Pat Morita’s character, it involves a menial task that must be done repeatedly, almost to the point of a compulsion.
Some may object to the puppy love between Dre and Mei Ying, paling in comparison to the original film’s teenage love between Ralph Macchio and Elisabeth Shue. While I agree that there’s no such thing as romance before puberty, I am aware that those tween years see the emergence of hormones, and I can certainly believe that Dre and Mei Ying would have their first kiss by the light of a rear-screen projector. There’s no sense believing that they’re falling in love, because they’re not. If anything, they form a sweet and innocent friendship, one made stronger by the fact that both are being tested by their own life circumstances. And much like the divide between Dre and Cheng, both are threatened by cultural differences, Mei Ying’s parents fearful that a musically uninspired American boy will be a bad influence on her. Like all good boys, he just wants make a fine first impression.
A stretch in the middle of the film reveals views of mist-shrouded mountains and tours of ancient temples, where kung fu students practice rigorously. This is perhaps a bit conventional, but it’s also undeniably breathtaking. I’m addressing that last observation to those who can’t bring themselves to see this movie for its story or its characters – maybe the visuals will win them over. Still, don’t be so quick to dismiss everything else it has to offer. Yes, The Karate Kid is yet another Hollywood remake, but that doesn’t change the fact that it tells an engaging story with interesting characters and features good performances. I greatly enjoyed this movie, and if you go into it with an open mind, I think you will too.