The Karate Kid
Good, But Too Familiar?

There’s no denying that the 2010 version of The Karate Kid is a well-made movie.  It’s entertaining, engaging and moves briskly for its surprisingly long running time of 140 minutes.  It’s a cinch that a large portion of moviegoers—especially the younger ones—are going to leave the theater completely satisfied.  Still, there’s going to be another group of moviegoers—specifically the ones who grew up in the ’80s—who are going to wonder: what was the point?

Even more of a fish-out-of-water story than the 1984 original, The Karate Kid opens with young Dre Parker moving from Detroit to Beijing where his mother is starting a new job.  Invited by one of his new neighbors to the local park, Dre’s flirtation with a young Chinese girl is interrupted by a group of bullies who give him a brutal beating.  The bullies continue to taunt Dre every day at school.  When he tries to get back at them, he is chased into a corner and is about to be viciously beaten when the apartment complex maintenance man shows up and uses kung fu to fend off the attackers.

His savior, Mr. Han, promises to train Dre for the upcoming kung fu tournament, where he will get to face his tormentors one-by-one.  At first, Dre is not quite sure what he’s gotten himself into as his training consists of picking up his coat, hanging it up, removing it, and starting all over again.  But just when he is about to lose faith in Mr. Han’s teachings, he is shocked to discover that he had been learning kung fu all along.

Harald Zwart, director of The Karate KidChange the names and locations in that plot description and you have the summary of the 1984 original and there is nothing wrong with that.  It is a remake, after-all.  Still, take the more memorable remakes in film history and you will notice something: they strayed from the original.  The 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead replaced the plodding zombies of the original with fleet of foot terrors, while the 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven kept barely more than the idea of a Vegas casino heist and the name of the main character.  Meanwhile, no one remembers the 1998 Psycho remake that was virtually a shot-by-shot do-over.

The Karate Kid is not a shot-by-shot remake of the original, but it is nearly a scene-by-scene remake.  There’s one long sequence in the middle in which Dre and Mr. Han climb a mountain to drink from the dragon well that largely makes up for this film’s increased running time, but other than that it follows the exact same map as the original.  For fans of the original, that means that there are no surprises around any corner, and that certainly lessens the film’s impact.  I expected some twists to happen in the tournament, but at that point it really becomes a shot-by-shot remake with extremely minimal changes, such as replacing the famous “sweep the leg” line with “break his leg.”

That said, director Harald Zwart does a good job of putting the film together and aside from a few awkward camera moments near the beginning, there is nothing really to criticize.  Jaden Smith does a fine job in his first leading role, even if he does try a little too hard at times to emulate his famously charming father (Will Smith, for those not in the know).  Where he’s most effective is in the fight scenes at the end.  Having a background in kung fu, Smith is much more believable as someone who might win a tournament than Ralph Macchio.

Stepping into the Oscar-nominated shoes of Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi/Han is Jackie Chan, who delivers his most rounded performance to date.  Chan is very quiet in the role, using his famous stunt abilities only for the one scene in which he comes to Dre’s aid.  Chan also manages to avoid making that into a somewhat awkward scene.  Whereas the kids in the original were teenagers, these are actual “kids” in the remake and it could have been strange to see a grown man beat up on a bunch of kids.  But Chan instead turns their aggressiveness on each other, and manages to fight them off without even throwing a punch.

It will be interesting to see what kind of response The Karate Kid gets.  On the one hand, it is one of the better movies in what has been a lackluster summer season.  On the other hand, generations who have already seen the familiar plot may long for the one they grew up with.  One thing is for sure. “Jacket on, jacket off” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The Karate Kid is rated PG for “bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language.”  There are some pretty brutal beatings in the movie, but not much blood.  As long as the kids get the message that the best fights are the ones that don’t happen, they should be alright.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of The Karate Kid.