Movie ReviewsRating: 4 of 5 yaps
The Karate Kid
Any remake always has the specter of the original looming. The question on everyone’s mind is often not “is it as good as the original,” but simply “is it close?”
So let’s get it out of the way. The Jaden Smith/Jackie Chan “Karate Kid” is not as good as the original, at least in my eyes, which were trained to appreciate movies in large part through John G. Avilden’s ’80s classic. It was one of my favorite movies as a kid, and remains on that list to this day.
Having said that, “The Karate Kid” is one of the better remakes of the past several years.
And it is such for the several reasons we typically grouse about when we lambast inferior re-dos: when deciding what to change and what not to change, they chose wisely.
The basic plot stays the same, right down to individual beats: boy moves to strange new land, meets his apartment’s mysterious handyman, gets bullied by some locals, then learns martial arts, and fights his rivals at a tournament.
The differences do just enough to distinguish and modernize the story for the 2010 audience: Mr. Miyagi is now Mr. Han (Chan), Daniel is now a few years younger, is black and is named Dre (Smith), New Jersey-to-LA is now Detroit-to-China, the Cobra Kai are now (the somewhat less intimidating) “Fighting Dragons,” “wax on, wax off” is now “jacket on, jacket off” (which, I suppose, is no less vaguely prurient when spoken out of context), and Ali-with-an-i is now a sweet violin prodigy (the too-cute Han Wen Wen).
Also for our ADHD-afflicted brain, the action is amped up, with tighter shots, quicker cuts, and somewhat more unlikely acrobatic moves than its big-screen papa.
Chan can’t match the magnetism and pure sense of fun Pat Morita’s sensei brought to the table, but as the more morose and emotionally damaged Han, he is an able and effective teacher and father figure to Dre.
One of my chief concerns was seeing the inevitable teacher-saves-student-from-bullies scene, which here features essentially a bunch of 14-year-old boys vs. one of the most famous martial artists in the world, which seems a tad unfair and maybe even sadistic.
But it’s a dynamic, funny scene where Mr. Han lays nary a fist on any of them, but instead allows them to beat each other up by deflecting their blows into each other and performing a few vintage Jackie Chan moves on them, twisting them into each other and dodging their blows with an almost bored ease.
Smith somehow manages to be a spitting image of both his mom and dad, and has learned, by osmosis, DNA, or otherwise, many of his pop’s mannerisms. At times it’s annoying to see Fresh Prince Junior doing everything but spouting his daddy’s signature “aw, hell naw,” but he does have some chops, charisma to spare, and more than enough screen presence for someone his age.
The climactic kung fu tournament is similarly updated, adding in a cute twist with a colorful replay screen that recounts (sometimes comically) the point-scoring blows, but somehow manages to make the All-Valley Under 18 Tournament look like child’s play.
As for whether Dre whips out Daniel-san’s signature Crane kick, that would be giving a bit too much away, but let’s just say the ending rings somewhat familiar, but has its own sense of style.
It all coalesces into a fun trek down a well-worn path, telling essentially the same story the previous 4 “Karate Kid” movies did (what, you don’t remember Part III and the Hilary Swank version?), along with 6 “Rocky” movies and scores of other knockoffs have told.
But still, somehow it manages to be emotional (I’ll admit I choked up a time or two), harrowing, and exciting.
So sure, the only surprise you really get is that this “Karate Kid” is actually good. But hey, that’s enough. As a dad who has already shown his progeny the original films, I can feel perfectly comfortable showing them this one as well without feeling cheap and exploited.