Karate Kid, The (United States/China, 2010)June 09, 2010
In many ways, The Karate Kid is the perfect remake: faithful to the source material in large part yet offering enough nuanced differences to allow it to stand on its own. The problem with the film is that that story, hackneyed when it first made it to the screen in 1984, has grown only more tired over the past 26 years. The film adheres so rigorously to the typical sports-movie clichés, with the downtrodden underdog facing off against the bullying favorite in a major tournament after finding a wise mentor and undergoing a long training process, that instances of freshness can be found only in the margins. The Karate Kid would be no less familiar if it wasn't a remake.
The biggest change between the 1984 edition and its 2010 successor is in tone. When Ralph Macchio wore the mantle of the title character, the approach was generally lighthearted and occasionally cheesy. In the remake, we have entered the Valley of Darkness. This is a grim motion picture. The bullies are more vicious than their predecessors, the Karate Kid rarely smiles or jokes, and the mentor's dour demeanor veils a deep tragedy. Given today's society's predisposition toward the serious and cynical, the change to The Karate Kid's tone is warranted. It grounds the movie and prevents it from coming across as a self-parody. The trade-off - one some viewers will surely disagree with - is that the sense of innocence that permeated the 1984 version is gone. Despite the PG-rating and the reduction in age of the protagonist (from high school to junior high), The Karate Kid 2010 is a more adult production than its forebear.
In 1984, the main character experienced the culture shock associated with changing coasts - moving from New Jersey to California. Here, this aspect of the story has been amplified to create a true "fish out of water" scenario, with Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) traveling alongside his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson), from the United States to China. In his new home, Dre is unable to speak the language, which limits his associations to those who know at least a little English. This includes the school bully, Cheng, who takes an instant dislike to Dre; a pretty girl, Meiying, who has the opposite reaction; and the apartment maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who spies a hidden promise in Dre. From there, the story unfolds as expected: the conflict between Cheng and Dre escalates, with the latter repeatedly getting the short end of the stick; Dre learns that Mr. Han is a kung-fu master and pleads with the taciturn man to teach him; class and cultural differences threaten to derail Dre's burgeoning relationship with Meiying; the training is more mundane than Dre expects; and everything builds toward the final showdown with Cheng. You don't have to see the movie to know how it ends. In fact, you don't need to have seen any movie with the words "Karate Kid" in the title to predict with 100% accuracy how events will be resolved. One could argue that such certainty is a part of the movie's charm. Or a key aspect of its weakness.
The decision to "de-age" the main character by about four years works within the context of the story. Dre is not so young that a light romance with Meiying is out of place, but his youth allows him to be vulnerable and to react with limited maturity. Where Macchio's Daniel was angry about being forced to move from home, Dre is hurt and lost. His cockiness disappears rapidly following his first beating at the hands of Cheng. It helps that Jaden Smith, the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, is an adept performer with natural charisma.
Jackie Chan's Mr. Han bears only a passing resemblance to Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi. Much of the humor associated with Miyagi has been left behind, which is surprising since Chan is as much a comedian as an action star. A poignant incident in Miyagi's past has been expanded into a full-blown tragedy for Han, whose dour reticence is easily explained by this turn of events. Chan is a good actor and this role allows him to show a more dramatic persona than many of his fans will recognize; this is also an opportunity for him to use his martial arts skills in a manner befitting someone of his age. It's no longer believable to see Chan involved in intricately choreographed fights, but teaching a kid is no stretch.
One significant misstep made by the remake is how the act of physical repetition within Dre's training is approached. In the original The Karate Kid, Daniel was forced into doing a number of chores - waxing a car, sanding a deck, painting a fence and house - that appeared to benefit Miyagi but, in reality, were tasks designed to build and train his muscles. In the new movie, his single action - picking up a sweatshirt and hanging it on a peg - follows the pattern of the 1984 movie but loses the essence. The pointlessness of the sweatshirt routine, coupled with its limited association with the moves Dre learns, botches an element that previously worked.
There are some explicit nods to the 1984 movie. The title, The Karate Kid, is one. Although Daniel learned a variation of karate from Mr. Miyagi, Dre's martial art of choice is kung-fu. While Mr. Han never utters the iconic phrase "wax on, wax off," he is shown in one scene to apply wax to a car using a circular motion. There's also a sequence when he uses chopsticks in an attempt to capture a fly; however, after growing impatient, he employs a fly-swatter.
Generally, remakes fall somewhere on a spectrum of "brilliant re-creation" to "embarrassing waste-of-time." Although the uninspired resume of director Harald Zwart (whose previous efforts include Agent Cody Banks and The Pink Panther 2) might lead one to expect the worst, The Karate Kid falls somewhere in the middle. It is redundant and unnecessary but it's also inoffensive and does nothing to damage the reputation of the original. Despite the roughness of the violence (which probably should have resulted in a PG-13 rating), The Karate Kid offers something for nostalgic parents and children who don't want to see an "old" movie. It's perfectly adequate, which might be the best one could hope for given the source material.
Karate Kid, The (United States/China, 2010)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Screenplay: Christopher Murphey, based on the story by Robert Mark Kamen
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Music: James Horner
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