It bears mentioning that The Karate Kid is a remake of the original 1984 classic. It’s important to know that little bit because there’s actually no karate in the 2010 version. The martial art that’s practiced is Kung Fu. Since the title needs to reference the original Karate Kid to make better sense, it goes without saying that audiences that are familiar with the source material will have a better appreciation for the remake. Fans of the original will be pleasantly surprised to discover how faithful this update is to the original. Newcomers – especially the target audience of preteens – will come to enjoy the underdog story that has been adapted to fit a whole new, younger age group.
Twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) are relocating to China from the jobless city of Detroit. During his first day in the new country, Dre makes a new friend, meets a girl – Meiying (Wenwen Han) – and subsequently makes a new enemy – Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) – who happens to be quite skilled in Kung Fu. When Dre tries to stand up for Meiying, Cheng decimates him with his superior fighting skills. Unfortunately, the abuse continues when Dre discovers that he and Cheng attend the same school, forcing Dre to hide around corners to avoid a confrontation. The situation comes to a violent head when Dre provokes a fight and Cheng and his friends beat Dre to a pulp. Thankfully, the local maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), intervenes, revealing his own mastery of Kung Fu. Mr. Han offers to train Dre in order for him to stand up to the bullies in an upcoming, organized Kung Fu competition. Along the way to becoming a fighting machine, Dre picks up a few life-lessons about respect and making peace instead of war.
Fans of the original film will feel right at home watching the remake. Some scenes – especially the third act – are lifted almost word for word from the 1984 version. The fact that this incarnation of The Karate Kid rarely deviates from the source material just goes to show how powerful and resonant the original writing was. The newer aspects of the film, such as the new location and fleshed out love interest, help freshen up the story and broaden the experience to something universal rather than uniquely American. China is presented in a favorable light, for the most part, with beautiful, exotic locales, friendly people and a care-free, go-anywhere atmosphere.
The acting from the young cast is about as good as is fair to expect, considering the material. Jaden Smith exudes the necessary charisma to carry the film and fans of his father, Will Smith, will marvel at the uncanny similarities between father and son, including facial expressions and line delivery. The acting is most genuine, however, when dealing with base emotions, like fear, anger and sadness. Other scenes aren’t as convincing when the emotions become more complex, like when a fighter supposedly has reservations about performing an illegal move in order to guarantee a victory. While the internal conflict that was so effective in the original movie is missing, the malevolence of the antagonists comes through nicely. Zhenwei Wang is truly menacing in the ways that adults expect children to be and that parents hope their children never have to experience. Surprisingly, Jackie Chan turns in the best performance in the film. Not only are his physical feats fun to watch, but his dramatic acting is also top notch. The brief scene where Mr. Han explains his history to Dre is nothing short of fine cinematic acting.
If there is anything that is out of sync in The Karate Kid it would be the choice to use such a young cast. Violence knows no age group, but the kind of sophisticated violence exhibited in the film suggests a certain level of maturity that doesn’t quite ring true at this age group. Fighting always seems like a last resort for conflict resolution and children are typically a symbol of hope. It’s difficult to reconcile the two, whereas fighting seems more at home in the teenage/high school age group where behavior is more solidified and violence is sometimes the only answer. Furthermore, there’s something unsavory about watching Jackie Chan beat up a bunch of kids. Granted, he handles them in the kind of non-violence violent way audiences know Chan for, but the mismatch is still palpable.
Nevertheless, The Karate Kid is sure to be a hit with its target audience. It’s a movie meant for kids that isn’t necessarily a kids’ movie. As in the original, a lot of mature issues are dealt with here, including terror, death, respect, love and violence. If kids can last the grueling two and a half-hour runtime, they’ll appreciate the mature story that never feels like it’s talking down to them.
They’ll probably also beg their parents to sign them up for Kung Fu classes.