The Karate Kid (2010) dir. Harald Zwart
Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Zhenwei Wang, Rongguang Yu
By Alan Bacchus
Despite it’s mondo box office take this summer The Karate Kid is not a great movie, a glossy but tepid remake of the John G. Avildsen feel good classic about a kid who forms a paternal bond with an aging mentor to order to learn karate and stand up to the school bullies. Adults might get some fun out of authentic Chinese locales, the fine performance from Jackie Chan, a couple of Avildsen-worthy montage sequences or from the rousing kung fu tournament finale, but recasting this film with 12 year olds means anyone outside of the Justin Bieber fan base will find this mostly a cutsey bore.
To the producers’ credit they have cleverly updated the story for a more relevant globally connected modern world and at the same time adhered to the core story elements and narrative formula which made the original so memorable.
This time round the kid, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is a fatherless child who is a fish out of water, living with his mom who recently got outsourced to Beijing China. Of course it’s a strange culture for Dre who has trouble adapting, especially when a group of bullies who flash some serious kung fu style beat up on him. Dre tries to fight back but can’t match the size and strength of the leader Cheng.
Dre’s taken in as a student by the lowly janitor Mr. Han (Chan), who’s actually a Kung Fu master. Instead of waxing his master’s car or painting his fence Han gets Dre to take his jacket on and off a hundred times as a way to trick him into learning the fundamentals of martial arts. Instead of a Karate tournament, Dre enters a Kung Fu tournament as a way of besting his bullies and fulfilling a sense of confidence and affirming his place in the new culture.
Director Zwart’s glossily on location work in spectacular sites such as Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City give the film a sense of epic scope missing from Avildsen’s distinctly working class vibe of the original. But what fails the film is the recasting from the more universal teenage/high school setting to this pre-teen middle school age bracket, which pretty much dissolves the film of any real connection to the plight of the character – unless you tend to think a lot about those good times in Grade 8.
The teenage social angst of the Avildson version is transported without much change into these 12 year old characters. Like Ralph Macchio’s pursuit of the lovely Elizabeth Shue in the original Jaden Smith falls in love with a child prodigy violinist. Their courtship plays out in a traditional male-female romance we would see in any teenage or post-teen romantic comedy, but when those longing glances, smooth first moves and general courtship rituals play out with children of such young ages it feels so utterly false and contrived.
Of course some people might find Jaden Smith’s first on-screen kiss with the violin prodigy cute, but that’s about it, cute. Luckily though, Jackie Chan gives one of his best performances, one which relies on his acting and not his acrobatics. As the broken down former kung fu master who now lives a meek existence as a handyman Chan brings the same stoic demeanour but strong fatherly wisdom as Pat Morita - and he can actually fight. Chan is given a chance to showcase his skills on a couple of occasions, once in his introduction, when he stops Dre from getting beaten up by the schoolyard bullies and once in a deleted scene when he faces off against the Sen Sei nemesis Master Li. The latter thankfully was cut out. It works as a fun one-off fight sequence but has no place being where it is in the movie. If a sequel gets made look for the scene again at the opening, just like the beginning of Karate Kid 2.
The Karate Kid is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Picture Home Entertainment