Film Review: The Karate Kid

2010 – 139mn – PG

Directed by Harald Zwart. Starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson.

Review by Walter Nichols

Another week, another 1980s remake (if you count TV remakes, that’s two this week, along with the A-Team film). The Ralph Macchio-starrer The Karate Kid, one of those bad movies every child of the 80s remembers fondly, was always bound to get “re-imagined”, and the good news is that, now that it’s happened, the resulting movie is actually a pretty good one.

The new version sticks closely to the original in plot, but cleverly transposes the setting to the cradle of martial arts: China itself. A single mother (Taraji P. Henson) moves to Beijing for work, taking with her her 12-year-old son Dre (Will Smith’s son Jaden). Dre hates the move, doesn’t fit, and barely speaks the language. He is ignored by all except the handyman in their new building, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). When Dre falls for Meiying, a girl at his new school, he starts getting bullied by the piggish Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), a boy who also has his sights on her. Cheng and his buddies are kung-fu champions, and they put their martial skills to use on Dre, beating him up at every opportunity. One day, after Dre has the audacity to fight back, they chase him back home, and are about to submit him to the worst beat-down ever, when Mr. Han steps in – and masterfully defeats all of the children without even directly laying a finger on them. An old kung fu master, Mr. Han takes Dre under his wing, and teaches him that there is more to kung fu than fighting…

From there the plot builds to a Tournament of Champions, in which Dre has been signed up to fight Cheng and his cronies, who are all part of a kung-fu team taught by Master Li (Rongguang Yu), a twisted, sadistic man with a mean, long face and a bad haircut. In Mr. Han’s words, “there are no bad students, only bad teachers”, and it’s Master Li’s violent hold on his pupils that Dre is really fighting to break.

It all sounds suitably cheesy, and the film cleverly embraces the old-school simplicity of the story it has to tell. Director Harald Zwart, who brought us such masterpieces as Agent Cody Banks and The Pink Panther 2, displays more flair here than in all his previous pictures; and despite the long 140 minute runtime, he keeps proceedings moving breezily. The result is fun, energetic, entertaining, even a little soulful. The Chinese setting is so much more powerful than the surfer-boy California of the original, and the culture shock Dre is subject to makes his journey more relatable. Beijing (and the beautiful, wilder parts of China some sections of the story take place in) is gorgeously shot and the whole film expertly produced by veteran Jerry Weintraub and Will Smith himself. The fighting scenes are well-structured, tense, and unpredictable.

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Overall the film is well cast. Jaden Smith is an eerie pint-size copy of his dad, only with big melancholy eyes. He even has the same acting tics. Like Will, he’s confident to the point of arrogance but always likeable in spite of it, and some of his acting is strained by too much effort – they both too often try to drive the point home when they would be best served by letting it breathe. Everything he does or says embodies the best and the worst of America personified: he’s conceited but tolerant, overconfident but open, funny but devoid of irony. All of this works wonders in the context of the story, and Jaden also brings commendable commitment and believability to the martial arts scenes.

The role of Mr. Han was made for Jackie Chan, and he wears it like a comfortable set of pajamas. His charisma is what really grounds the film. In the same way Jaden personifies modern America, the iconic Asian star subconsciously means China to us: he is a wise man of few words and deadly martial speed. Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi (the mentor in the original Karate Kid) was an almost cartoonish Yoda figure. Jackie Chan’s Mr. Han is a much more layered and sympathetic figure. Chan’s face is wrinkled by laugh lines at the same time his eyes water with endless sadness, and his comic timing and fighting skills are intact. He is devoid of showiness, and proves it by gracefully leaving the spotlight to the young Jaden, never trying to steal a scene he shouldn’t steal.

The Karate Kid doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and one might argue there are too many clich�d montages, too much earnestness, and that at times the whole thing takes itself too seriously. But the screening I went to had children gasping and jumping out of their seats, and parents cheering and whooping (a few mothers, I think, even developed a little crush on Mr. Han, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some were wishing they could bring Jackie Chan and his discipline wisdom back home to their own kids). It’s fun, giddy, wholesome entertainment for the whole family – something that, unless it’s animated, is getting increasingly hard to find.

Star rating: 4 out of 5 stars