It is only fitting to discuss its successes or failures based on how well it lives up to the high standards of the original.
Of all the remakes that have been released in recent years and are yet to be released, The Karate Kid will be one of the most divisive for anyone who grew up in the ’80s. 1984’s The Karate Kid, with Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio, is a beloved movie that perfectly captured the idealistic worldview of 1980s cinema. Most adults today who grew up watching the movie have seen it hundreds of times over the years on basic cable and have memorized Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” philosophical approach to martial arts. To try to improve upon that perfectly distilled memory from childhood is sure to rub some moviegoers the wrong way.
But, like so many other movies and TV shows pre-1990, The Karate Kid has been remade and stars Jaden Smith as the eager student and Jackie Chan as the wise and reluctant teacher. In probably the only interesting twist on the original, Smith’s character, Dre Parker, moves to China because his mother (Taraji P. Henson) was transferred for work. Whereas in the original, Mr. Miyagi was the only Asian character surrounded by white people, here Dre is the outcast as the only black student surrounded by Chinese students. Almost immediately Dre drifts into the crosshairs of martial arts prodigy Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who gives Dre a rather brutal public beating for talking to the girl he likes, Meiying (Wenwen Han).
The rest of the movie follows the original pretty closely in terms of plot and action: Dre keeps getting beat up; he is eventually rescued by the mysterious maintenance man Mr. Han (Chan); then, after much pleading, Mr. Han agrees to teach Dre kung fu. This point is sure to be the one about which most fans of the original will complain. Dre does not learn karate; he learns kung fu. He is The Kung Fu Kid (admittedly, not as good of a title). Does this really matter in terms of forming an opinion of the movie? That will be for the audience to decide.
It is hard not to base a review of this movie on a comparison to the original because many of the plot points are identical. The filmmakers have not tried to reinvent the story’s structure, and so it is only fitting to discuss its successes or failures based on how well it lives up to the high standards of the original.
In most respects, The Karate Kid, though predictable, is an enjoyable movie because of the performances by Smith and Chan. The two have a very natural chemistry that makes you believe the master/student relationship that forms between them. Dre’s training is much more intense and grueling than what Daniel LaRusso had to endure. Similarly, the fight choreography in this new version is quite brutal, both in its style and the way it is filmed. Director Harald Zwart places a strong emphasis on the realism of the fights, and cinematographer Roger Pratt, who worked on Troy and Chocolat, captures the action with a wonderful visual approach that tracks each kick or punch as it lands on the unfortunate opponent.
Stepping into a role that is physically demanding, Smith is excellent both in his talent as a leading man and in his dedication to mastering several fighting styles. The ease with which he executes his movement proves he has clearly spent serious time studying martial arts. Where Ralph Macchio looked like an actor playing karate, Smith has the skills to convince us he could compete with students who have been training for years.
Chan is, as always, stunningly beautiful in his skills as a martial artist, but the real surprise here is the amount of heart and actual acting he provides. We get much more of Mr. Han’s back story and personal demons than we ever did of Mr. Miyagi. Chan definitely delivers in his role and plays the part of teacher quite adeptly.
There are plenty of reasons the film will be criticized (Mr. Han’s “jacket on, jacket off” will never be a classic line like “sand the floor” or “paint the fence”), but the movie is still a pleasant experience with terrific performances by its two lead actors and much more impressive fight choreography than the original.| Matthew F. Newlin