2010’s remake of The Karate Kid presents itself with a major distraction immediately when it begins in the form of Jaden Smith, taking over for Ralph Macchio in the eponymous role. The location has changed from Japan to China, the style has subsequently changed from karate to kung fu, and most notably Daniel has disappeared in favor of Dre, a much younger boy who looks like Jada and speaks, moves, and acts like Will. The family resemblance is stunning and completely overwhelming at first; Dre, relocated from Detroit to Beijing, makes a fool out of himself with the same kind of clown’s charm that has helped make his dad such a popular star. He shoots too high trying to impress the other children in his new neighborhood during a game of basketball. He disrespects an elderly man during a casual, friendly game of ping pong and quickly finds out that the man was only going easy on him. It’s not a challenge at all to imagine Will making the same choices if presented with similar circumstances.
Observing Jaden as a living, breathing echo of his parents is only a short-term activity though; this remake of the 1984 Karate Kid finds its footing quickly as Jaden’s presence becomes more familiar and less diverting. The new film takes the original in a number of different directions but keeps the spirit as well as the deliciously cheesy 80’s vibe of that beloved coming-of-age film intact; the result is surprisingly entertaining and full of verve despite being about fifteen minutes overlong, and driven by the charisma of its star. Maybe more eyebrow-raising than that: For a children’s movie, this is above average in terms of competence, a two hour (and change) long film that hardly stumbles at all until the last act, from which it quickly recovers before delivering on the promise of its lead’s arc.
The story should be familiar to most of us: Dre’s mother (Taraji P. Henson) uproots his life when her company reassigns her to China. Struggling to fit in, our hero runs afoul of local bullies and finds a defender and mentor in Mr. Han (Jackie Chan, playing restrained, respectable, and noble), a maintenance man at Dre’s building who also happens to be an expert martial artist. Everything, Han tells us, is kung fu, from the way people approach their daily chores to how they treat each other. To shield Dre from further harassment Han enters the boy into a martial arts tournament to compete against his tormentors, and trains him in the interim. Where things go from there should be even more obvious, but the film is incredibly fun and immensely satisfying in spite of foreknowledge of the film’s plot movements.
It all falls on the shoulders of Smith and Chan. If The Karate Kid featured two lesser leads, then the case could be made that the film would fall short in the entertainment department. But Smith, like his dad, clearly displays a talent for endearing himself to his audience even when he’s at his most childish and petulant. Whether he’s taking off his jacket and leaving it in the middle of the living room for his mother to pick up or training fervently with Chan, Jaden makes us root for him almost effortlessly; we want him to succeed. Maybe we all like underdogs; there’s also something universally appealing about seeing the little guy (I mean this figuratively) overcome his opposition against the odds. Or maybe we’ve all been there in some capacity or another and we empathize with Dre’s problems, though I suspect few among this blog’s readership have had to pick up their lives and transpose them square in the midst of a foreign culture. Most likely Jaden just has good genes, coming to the film equipped with built-in affability and magnetism inherited from his folks. I defy anyone to watch this movie and not find him likable.
For me the bigger triumph of The Karate Kid is Chan himself. The years haven’t been kind to Chan, relegating the martial arts legend to roles in uninspired family films and the Rush Hour franchise. (Back in 2008, he did have a big role in the The Forbidden Kingdom, which admittedly has a lot to recommend it.) While Mr. Han isn’t the same sort of role as Lu Yan– there’s a huge disparity in required athleticism between the two characters– he’s without a doubt a step up from Passepartout and Bob Ho, allowing Chan to remind us of what he’s capable of when he’s on his game and show off his dramatic chops to boot. Chan is quiet, observant; he walks with a limp, arms dangling at his side, and still manages to carry himself with grace and dignity. His greatest challenge in portraying Mr. Han may be in replacing Pat Morita and doing justice to his Oscar-nominated performance (in case you didn’t know, Morita did in fact get a nod for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the original), and to that end the veteran kung fu star succeeds and then some. While he’s not likely to enjoy the same level of critical success as his predecessor, it’d be surprising if Chan didn’t garner a good amount of praise for his turn here.
Karate Kid‘s biggest surprise lies in how it’s crafted. While not the most masterful film you’ll ever see, director Zwart actually seems to care about how his picture is constructed, which is far, far more than can be said for most who find themselves behind the camera on the set of a movie that’s geared towards an audience that doesn’t put much stock in how much attention is given to the pacing, editing, and photography of the media they consume (or so the assumption seems to be). I applaud this. Zwart gets a lot out of his setting– the film was shot on location in Beijing, and he seems to be eager to make the most of his surroundings, capturing spaces such as the Forbidden City and a mountain monastery with a strong eye for composition and detail. And the fights– maybe not the most important element of a movie about a young boy learning to cope with and face his fears, but certainly an undeniable part of the story– for the most part establish a solid sense of geography and maintain visual coherence pretty consistently throughout, though they admittedly begin to fall apart a little towards the end. They won’t change the world, but they do the job and then some, particularly when Jackie Chan is involved (but that should surprise no one).
The Karate Kid kind of feels like it’s coming out of left field; it’s an unexpected good time at the theater in a summer that’s so far been driven by either mediocre films or flat-out duds. Reading over my own words, I realize that “better than mediocre” probably doesn’t sound like a recommendation but The Karate Kid is easily worth seeing on its own merits and not simply in relation to the lukewarm offerings the season has presented thus far. If you have kids who need a movie to see before pictures like Toy Story 3 hit theaters, this is a great choice. Fans of the original won’t be disappointed, either; the country and the fighting style have both changed (and wax on/wax off has been replaced by a jacket), but the heart and the emotion are one and the same. Pat Morita would be proud.