So, the young student in this latest of franchise reboots gets taught kung fu instead of karate. So why exactly is this remake called “The Karate Kid” in America when it should be named “The Kung Fu Kid” like it is in China? Perhaps it speaks of our collective ignorance of the martial arts. We see someone practicing it, and we immediately assume that they are doing karate as if we know all there is to know about it. Sooner or later, the realization will come that there are various forms of martial arts that people study all over the world. Not every martial art is the same as karate. Taekwondo, Jiu-Jitsu, Akido, etc., the list goes on forever, and yet we keep calling it the same darn thing!
We see someone fighting with wooden sticks, we assume its karate, but it’s actually eskrima. See those guys doing kickboxing? They are probably practicing Muay Thai which is a hard martial art. What about that guy or gal performing a high kick in the air? That’s probably Taekwondo, but some ignorant fool will likely blurt out:
“Wow! They’re really good at gymnastics!”
Well, some people mistake martial arts for something else. Then again, there’s always “Gymkata!” Remember that one from the 80’s?
So anyway, this long awaited remake of the 1984 classic is about kung fu, so let’s just leave it at that. It follows the same path as the plot of the original, and only the names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent. I guess the filmmakers came to realize that there can only be one Mr. Miyagi and one Daniel LaRusso.
Unlike the Larussos who moved cross country from New Jersey to California, Sherry Parker (the always wonderful Taraji P. Henson) and her son Dre relocate from Detroit to China as her job has been transferred there. So this time, the son’s alienation feels much more intense. Dre of course meets a beautiful girl his age, and this ends up setting off the school’s most brutal bully who dispatches Dre with relative ease and leaves him in a state of embarrassment on top of intense pain. It is only through the guidance of Mr. Han, the maintenance man of the building Dre and his mother live in, that he learns the ways of kung fu in order to defend himself and gain a strong dose of respect for himself and others around him.
As I said, this version mimics many of the same situations from before, but as the action moves on, it actually find its footing and stands comfortably on its own terms. I really wasn’t looking forward to this remake for various reasons. The original holds a special place in my heart as do many other movies I watched during the 80’s, and it had a power to it that could not be easily duplicated. But I was surprised to see that while the story is the same, it still works as rousing entertainment that even had me cheering along all the kids in the theater who couldn’t keep their mouths shut through the rest of the film. Yes, I had the experience here that I did when I saw “Wall-E.”
So, how come this remake works so well this time around? I think it’s mainly because the filmmakers remembered what made the one that started it all so special; it was not just about the left out kid getting revenge on the school bullies. “The Karate Kid” was more about how karate is used for self knowledge and how it benefits the inner spirit inside of us, allowing us to find balance in all the things we do. Move forward to 2010, and you see that this one understands that and applies the same lessons to another martial art, in this case kung fu. It is also about the remarkable friendship that evolves between the two people from different walks of life and how the student and the teacher learn from one another.
When I heard that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith were producing this remake, and that they were having their son Jaden cast in the starring role, I became convinced that they were spoiling their little boy rotten. I guess if you’re a big star like Will, you could either do for your son that or give him a $350,000 car like Sean Combs did. Since Jaden is only 12 years old, playing the lead in a multi-million Hollywood production was a more realistic option. That and the fact he’s not old enough to drive. But surprisingly enough, Jaden Smith has a lot of the same charisma and presence his parents have in the work they do, and you never see him try to be all likable and stuff.
With a lot of child actors, you expect to see them emoting all over the place, but that is not the case here, and Jaden involves us fully and emotionally and the travails his character suffers as the new kid in town. This is not the first time he has acted, but whether or not your believe Will and Jada are coddling him too much; it’s safe to say that Jaden is not a simple beneficiary of nepotism.
With Jackie Chan, we have seen him play the same kind of character over and over. This is fine because as long as he gives us the craziest and most hilarious of stunts throughout, we have no complaints because we don’t expect anything less. But in this new version of “The Karate Kid,” he really does become the character he plays, and he never mugs for the screen like he does in just about everything else. As maintenance man Mr. Han, Jackie gives what may very well be his best performance ever as the Miyagi-like character. Unlike Miyagi who had a great sense of humor which went along perfectly with his wisdom. Chan’s character of Han is a much darker individual whose life has been forever wrecked by a tragedy he can never get over. Chan still has the moves, especially when he takes out the bullies in brilliant style, but he gets to bring more depth to this role than anything else he has done previously.
Now many have complained that this “Karate Kid” is way too long, but even with a running time of nearly 2 and a half hours, I was still caught in the action and never found myself getting restless. Besides, the 1984 original was almost the same length, and that one never outstayed its welcome. The fact that people are surprised at the length of the 2010 version makes no sense when you take into account what huge fans they are of the 1984 original.
The director behind this particular remake is Harald Zwart whose previous film was “The Pink Panther 2” one of the many sequels that continues to prove that the franchise flat out should have ended after the death of Peter Sellers. This one shows his work off much better as he takes on the unenviable task of remaking a classic that really didn’t need a remake to begin with. Harald succeeds in bringing genuine feeling to the story and he keeps the action focused on the two main characters as this is really their story. Despite the movie’s length, he keeps the proceedings going at a smooth pace that rarely if ever lags.
Another smart move Harald made with screenwriter Christopher Murphey was in not using the same verbiage from the original. Such sayings as “wax on, wax off” are so deeply burned into the American lexicon even after 20 years, and it would have come across as self parody if those quotes were used here. Using the jacket as Dre’s initial entry into kung fu training was an interesting device that could have come across as ridiculous. Then again, it could have been much worse:
“Jock strap on, jock strap off…”
If there’s any big complaint I have about the film, it’s in the way it portrays the villains or antagonists if you want to call them that. What I really admired about the original was how it gave the “bad guys” more than one dimension to show off. You came to understand why Danny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his friends were the jerks that they were. They had become programmed in a most corrupt way over a period of time by their sensei, the brutal John Kreese (Martin Kove in his most memorable role). Seeing the way Danny reacted when Kreese told him to “sweep the leg” made you see that Johnny wasn’t all bad, and that he didn’t know what to make of his master anymore. Yet at the same time, he doesn’t want to let his sensei down, so he does what he has to do because he can’t figure out what else he can do.
With the 2010 version, the villains are more one-dimensional, and it takes away from the story quite a bit. Zhenwei Wang makes a perfectly hateful bully as Cheng, but he doesn’t really get much to do other than be a jerk. The motivation behind his actions comes across as lacking, and when the movie repeats scenes from the original classic, they end up feeling tacked on more than anything else. Also, the John Kreese of this piece, Master Li, is barely on the screen long enough to make much of an impact. Yu Rongguang does the evil master glare well, but he’s nothing compared to Kreese who made those for and against him shiver in never ending fear while standing at attention.
I also have to say that I really miss Bill Conti’s score from the other four KK movies. I mean, James Horner does very good work here, but those cheesy pop songs that come on at the beginning really took me out of the moment. That cheesy kind of music which I have largely outgrown worked fine in the original, but it didn’t capture the feeling the way Conti’s score did.
“The Karate Kid” version 2010 pretty much plays out the way you expect it to, but I still found myself getting into the action cheering with the rest of the audience. The formula behind this kind of movie is old, old, old, but it still works very effectively here, and that’s saying a lot. There’s no topping the original “Karate Kid,” but that’s okay. In the end, the best thing this one could do was be respectful to what the first of the franchise was all about, and it succeeds in doing just that. I wasn’t looking forward to this redo, but it exceeded whatever expectations I had of it.
Now, with it’s big box office weekend, you know that the studio is already thinking about a sequel. What I hope is that they will not have Dre’s girlfriend Mei Ying (the lovely Wen Wen Han) dump him for some college basketball player. That’s what they did with Elisabeth Shue’s character from the original, and the fans including myself have never recovered from that, ever! Dre, like Daniel LaRusso, has gone through too much to just get dumped by such a beautiful lady!
***½ out of ****
The Karate Kid (1984)