Seemingly more common than sequels or prequels these days, the remake seems to be the vehicle du jour for studios looking to capitalize on previously successful film franchises. In the last twenty years, we have seen loads more remakes than in previous decades, perhaps in part due to the rising costs of ticket prices, as studios prefer to give a greenlight to a proven property as a built-in strategy to hook viewers new and old.
When The Karate Kid remake was announced, it initially seemed like a crass attempt to ride the coattails of John G. Avildsen’s popular 1984 film, not to mention come off as the most egregious example of nepotism in recent memory, as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith basically produced it as a vehicle for their son, Jaden. Even without that added bit of information, it’s so easy to be cynical about remakes these days. However, every once in a while, one comes along that surprises you. And in 2010, that welcome surprise was The Karate Kid.
While the original film focused on a Jersey teen transplanted to Los Angeles, the new Karate Kid features a much more dramatic case of culture shock, as twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moves from Detroit to China when his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) gets a job in Beijing. Although initially unhappy, Dre’s spirits brighten when he meets a cute violinist, Mei Yang (Han Wenwen), whose winning smile initiates the first pangs of innocent puppy love.
But their budding romance is soon threatened when a group of local bullies led by Cheng (Wang Zhenwei) proceed to make Dre’s life a living hell. On one occasion, Cheng and his henchmen chase Dre down and beat him senseless – that is, until the maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) intervenes, revealing himself to be well-versed in the martial arts. One might balk at a sequence in which Jackie Chan fights off a group of preteens, but the bullies of The Karate Kid are so blackhearted, you’ll be surprised how cathartic it is to see a grown man deliver a good whipping to a group of young punks.
After tending to the boy’s injuries, Mr. Han refuses to teach Dre kung fu, instead suggesting they resolve the matter with Master Li (Yu Rongguang), the bullies’ sadistic teacher. By the end of their heated discussion, Han has volunteered Dre as a competitor in an upcoming tournament, albeit with the condition that the boys leave him alone to prepare for the big showdown. Let the Drunken Master-style training montages begin!
If you are at all familiar with the 1984 version of The Karate Kid, much of the 2010 remake will not come as much of surprise, as it’ll likely stir fond memories of the original, either in terms of how close or how far you feel the remake measures up in comparison. What may surprise you, however, is just how involving and legitimately moving the contemporary re-imagining turns out to be.
Despite a curiously long running time of two hours and twenty minutes, the film feels remarkably brisk in terms of its pacing. What should feel like a ticking off of plot points in preparation for the inevitable finale instead feels wholly organic, as the filmmakers never treat the outcome as if it’s predetermined. It’s not hyperbole when I say the cinematography from Harry Potter veteran Roger Pratt is breathtaking to behold, as the inclusion of real-life locations like the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and the Wudang Mountains give the remake an epic scope that was not at all present in the original. China has rarely looked better on film.
With Shinjuku Incident and Little Big Soldier, Jackie Chan seems to be carefully selecting his roles, eager to stretch his acting muscles as he grows older. This time around, it’s nice to see the fifty-six-year old actor taking on the role of sifu, rather than the young student (Drunken Master 2 is a great film, but it’s pure goodwill that allows anyone to believe that the then-forty-year-old Chan could play a teenager). Quite refreshingly, Chan does not rely one iota on his typical, happy-go-lucky persona from previous films, but instead convincingly plays a man who is haggard, tired and, yes, even old.
I can’t put my finger on it, but Chan’s acting in the big emotional scenes seems leaps and bounds ahead of his sweaty, “Look at me!” overacting in such films as New Police Story. Pat Morita earned a Best Actor nomination from the Academy Awards in his role as Mr. Miyagi, and while Chan won’t be winning any acting accolades for the equivalent version of that character, he offers up a strong performance nonetheless.
As the protagonist of the film, Jaden Smith emerges as somewhat of a revelation. One expects little from child actors, but Smith’s acting is spot-on, especially in the all-too-important emotional scenes. The kid possesses a charisma that never feels too cocky, while his small stature and delicate features make look incredibly vulnerable against his much larger and more vicious attackers. It’s a delicate balance that both Smith and Zwart effectively achieve.
If anyone thought that the martial arts sequences would be watered down due to the ages of the characters involved, you’ll be incredibly shocked by the onscreen action in The Karate Kid, as the fight scenes are startlingly brutal, often more painful to watch than those featured in many kung fu movies made expressly for adults. The brutality of these confrontations creates a palpable air of danger that elevates these scenes, making them feel like anything but the “kid stuff” you might expect. It also doesn’t hurt that Jaden Smith actually looks scared to death in many of these face-offs.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspects of the film are the issues that are bubbling just under the surface. What is the film saying about the fall of Detroit and the rise of China? What are the racial politics embedded in the interracial romance plot, as filtered through a schoolboy crush? And how does the typical “white man goes to a foreign land to learn the ways of the locals” plot change when the protagonist is a minority? You don’t have to think about any of these issues to enjoy The Karate Kid, but this otherwise crowd-pleasing coming-of-age story bears some interesting subtext worth teasing out. Undeniably stirring and expertly-directed, The Karate Kid takes all the elements of the original film and spins them in fresh new directions. What more could you ask for in a remake? (Calvin McMillin, 2011)