There are lots of movies that can define a childhood. For some, The Wizard of Oz rings in their heads. For those perhaps a little less sophisticated, that first Mighty Morphin Power Rangers flick might be their fondest memory. Ask people my age what they grew up with and they may tell you the 1984 classic, The Karate Kid. Having seen that many times as a child, but none in recent years, I walked into the 2010 remake hesitant. Would fond memories of that film come flooding back to me as I watched or would it be able to carve out its own little place in my mind and work on its own terms? Well, I’m happy to report it was the latter. The Karate Kid remake is a fine film and those doubting it will live up to the original may have quite a shock coming.
The kid this time around is played by Jaden Smith. His name is Dre Parker and he is being forced to move from Detroit to China by his mother Sherry, played by Taraji P. Henson, who has just been transferred overseas by her employer, so he’s stuck there no matter how much he hates it, which is quite a bit. As soon as he arrives, the first day in fact, he gets beaten up by a nasty kid named Cheng, played ferociously by Zhenwei Wang. His life is hell and every day he lives with the fear of Cheng and his gang giving him a follow-up beating. One day while on the run, he meets Mr. Han, played by Jackie Chan, who saves him and puts the kids in their place. It turns out that they learned their craft from a local teacher, a mean guy whose motto is “No Weakness. No Pain. No Mercy.” But Han believes that kung-fu should be used for peace, not war and decides to talk to the teacher, only to enter Dre into the approaching kung-fu tournament, taking it upon himself to teach the boy discipline and hard work, thus making him strong enough to fight and protect himself.
The Karate Kid starts out weak. It’s one of those films that promises very little upon initial glance. The first scene shows Dre and his mother abruptly moving out, but not before showing us that his dad has died, seemingly begging for us to feel bad for him already. When he arrives in China, he makes a friend a bit too quickly and immediately meets a pretty girl. It’s this girl that helps him meet his bully. Even this is a little ridiculous. Cheng looks in no way intimidating and his dead cold stares only elicit laughter. The “bad guy” looks like little more than a wimp. But as they say, looks can be deceiving. As soon as he lands his first blow on Dre, your perception of him immediately changes. This kid means business and throughout the film the young actor does a terrific job of keeping the menace. He’s a sickly violent little creature and by the time the end rolls around, you’ll be begging to see him get his comeuppance.
Dre, on the other hand, is a good kid and wants only to be left alone. He’s scared out of his wits after his first encounter with Cheng and, similarly, looks like a wimp. But Jaden Smith, the offspring of the extremely talented Will Smith, does a terrific job. He’s of small body type, but his heart is big and he proves that you don’t necessarily need hulking muscles to fight, only a passion and desire to face your demons and prove your worth. Jaden is a natural in front of the camera and I feel comfortable saying he’s one of the best child stars working today.
But what really surprises here is Jackie Chan. After a string of “what was he thinking?” films, he’s finally back at the top of his game, but that isn’t the surprise. That comes from the fact that he actually has to act, and he's great. In his other American films, he merely has to kick and punch while smiling and cracking jokes, but here he has to emote and one scene in particular is heartbreaking. He took a role from the beloved Pat Morita in the original and made it his own, creating what is essentially a whole new character that thinks and feels and loves.
The film comes with faults, however. It chugs along for nearly two hours and fifteen minutes, a runtime far too long for a movie of this type, and drags in places, which could have been rectified had the romantic angle with the aforementioned pretty girl been dropped. Outside of one excellent scene late in the movie, the whole romance felt out of place and, frankly, a little weird.
But don’t tell that to the audience I was watching it with. I’ve never seen so much adulation for a film coming from the crowd. They were rooting for Dre the whole way, clapping at every hit landed on his foe and cheering for his victories. Indeed, it was a fun experience that I’m glad I had.
My thoughts on the trailer went back and forth prior to my screening. Sometimes it looked good. At other times it looked bad. But all of that doesn’t matter now. The final product is outstanding. The Karate Kid is an excellent film and is one of the biggest surprises of the year.
The Karate Kid receives 4/5