Advanced Review: The Karate Kid, 2010, dir. Harald Zwart

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.

13 thoughts on “Advanced Review: The Karate Kid, 2010, dir. Harald Zwart

  1. glad to hear that Jackie acquits himself well. I haven’t seen this film yet. I have noticed that there have been dark mutterings about the title in a few blogs I read. The problem for a few folks is that it’s called Karate Kid but it’s set in China, not Japan, and features Kung Fu, which is a different martial art to karate. Some people have seen this as being Western indifference to Asian culture.

  2. I admit, I do have a hard time imagining this to even be mediocre let alone a step above it.

    If what you say about Jaden’s performance proves true, it is possible this could avoid being an ultimate failure. His work on film so far has been some atrocious work, in particular The Day The Earth Stood Still. In a film full of horrid performances his reigned the worst even beyond Keanu’s morbid interpretation.

    I’ll try to have a more open mind about it, but I can say I won’t make it to the theater for it.

    • Meredith– Personally, I don’t mind that the title doesn’t change despite the huge cultural differences between China, Japan, and their respective martial arts. There’s something recognizable and iconic about that title, and besides, listen to yourself say “The Kung Fu Kid”. Maybe it doesn’t sound less ridiculous than “The Karate Kid”, but it doesn’t slide off the tongue as well.

      There is a moment in the film that addresses that Western indifference, which I appreciated, and I think that line ought to silence a lot of the people grousing about the decision to keep the original title.

      Heather– Jaden is kind of a cocky little punk, which is part of what makes his performance as Dre so good. Dre’s a brat. He’s not a terrible problem child, but he’s been bred into this American sense of entitlement and unaccountability that lends a layer of attitude to the character, which he later sheds as Jackie Chan slowly strips him of his worse qualities. The thing is that Jaden lets us know that Dre isn’t just a spoiled prince, and even when he’s copping attitude he’s still a lot of fun to watch.

      Even if Jaden doesn’t work for you, Jackie is really legit good here. This can be skipped in the theaters but it wouldn’t hurt to check it out on DVD eventually.

  3. Happy to see this is actually not going to be a complete bust as feared. I absolutely had no interest in seeing this until reading your review but now, I’m sure I will seek it out when it is released on DVD in a few months.

  4. Yep, 2010: The Summer of Mediocrity.

    I never found the young Smith to be too bad, to be honest (unlike Heather), but I’m glad to hear he acquits himself well. I guess the Smiths are now officially a Hollywood Dynasty. Move over Douglases.

    • Castor– I honestly had low expectations for this movie, and maybe that’s why it won me over. Glad to hear that my review has given you some interest in seeing this; let me know what you think when you get around to seeing it.

      Darren– Indeed. What a weak summer. The best things I’ve seen this season have been decidedly non-mainstream releases (Kick-Ass and most recently, Splice (foreshadowing!)), with Greek coming in pretty close and surprisingly MacGruber and The Karate Kid trailing behind THAT. Bad year. Maybe Inception and Scott Pilgrim alone will make this summer worth its own while, but we’ll see.

      • Yep, but even then it has been a slow start. We’re half way through by now, at least.

        Oh, I’ve flagged you with a meme-of-the-moment, if you’re at all interested.

  5. Although I don’t see the need to remake another 1980s classic, I like Harald Zwart as a director. He wouldn’t have been my automatic choice for this kind of film following the likes of One Night At Mccools but I’m interested to see how he adapts.

    • Zwart very smartly makes his setting almost as much a star in his film as Jaden and Jackie. The film looks great, start to finish, and Zwart has a good eye for capturing the action of his story in a way that keeps everything coherent, though there is a bit of chaos in the finale.

      I like the original, but I don’t think it’s a sacred cow or anything. Arguably there was no need to remake the original film, but I’m pretty glad they did.

  6. The Karate Kid 2010 is a remake film from the same title movie in 1984, the casting is perfect. Jaden Smith’s performance could well be the performance of the year, or so you think, only till the time Jackie Chan comes walking in to make life difficult for you. He kicks ass. Eventhough many site review doubt this movie I decide to Watch Karate Kid 2010 And this time, without even using his kung-fu. The anguish in his eyes, the defeat in his walk, the hope in his words. This is Jackie Chan at his sensitive best. If there is ever going to be a worth successor to Mr.Miyagi of ’84, it is Mr.Han of 2010.

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