The Matrix made it look easy. Sit down, lean back and have a cord plug into your brain like it was a power outlet. A few seconds later you impress your friends by saying, “I know Kung fu.” Sadly, in real life, it isn’t that easy. Sometimes it involves putting a jacket on and then taking it off.
It seems when it comes to remakes (or reboots if you prefer) of the movies you cherish most – and will defend until you are red in the face – the initial news is always the hardest to stomach. But once the pillars of Heaven stop shaking, you put the news behind you and not give it a second thought. And then the movie arrives and the pillars start shaking again.
The Karate Kid was one of those seminal classics from the decade that gave us big hair bands, “The Super Bowl Shuffle” and Swatches. It instilled valuable life lessons like the repercussions of showing no mercy, and it inspired a generation of car wash attendees with its most famous quote “wax on, wax off.” The film even spawned three sequels, the last of which starred a woman that would go on to win two Oscars. Just when we thought it was safe to leave sleeping Daniel-sans lie, we get a 2010 remake that takes place in China. And it works.
The filmmakers stick to what worked in the original Karate Kid, but make the needed changes to set it apart. The 1984 film is regarded as a classic, but when viewed today it shows its age. The overall story is a generic sports movie with the underdog facing off against the established athlete, or a bully in this case. The Karate Kid was like “High School Rocky” but with an Italian kid from New Jersey transplanted to California, karate instead of boxing, and a wise handyman instead of a gruff-sounding trainer. For the remake, it’s a black kid from Detroit transplanted to China, kung fu instead of karate, and the wise handyman is still a wise handyman.
In the twenty-six years between the original movie and the remake the school environment has changed dramatically. The original took the lighthearted approach to school life, but the remake is a compete 180 in terms of tone. The fights are more brutal and the humor is all but gone. The bullies make those of the Cobra Kai dojo seem like snot-nosed punks looking to steal your milk money. The change in demeanor gives it an adult-orientated edge, which is a surprise considering the protagonist is of middle-school age and film is rated PG.
Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) experiences huge culture shock when he and his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson), change more than zip codes; they change entire continents. Dre hasn’t quite mastered speaking Chinese, so he relies on his Detroit street smarts to make up for it. Thankfully, most of the characters he interacts with speak English as well as Chinese. This includes Meiying, a pretty girl that practices Bach on her violin, who takes a instant liking to Dre wanting to touch his cornrows. Taking an instant dislike to Dre is Cheng, the resident bad ass. And then there’s the apartment maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who befriends Dre when the boy tries to get the upper hand on Cheng, but winds up on the losing side of a six-on-one beat down. Good thing for Dre that Mr. Han fights like Jackie Chan.
The story unfolds just like the original with Dre pestering Mr. Han to teach him kara..I mean Kung fu. The class and cultural differences between Dre and Meiying is more pronounced going way beyond that of rich girl-poor boy. And it all leads up to the final showdown with Cheng.
The Karate Kid does more right than it does wrong, but those wrongs derail what could have been a great film. It starts with the beginning, which has an overly long first act. As Dre leaves, a friend gives him a skateboard. The look on the friend’s face could be a telling sign, but we have no context of the friendship they have. Also, the actual training is too repetitious, mostly involving the act of putting on and removing a jacket. Emphasizing this routine and less on the other techniques that Dre learns seems like a missed opportunity by the filmmakers. At least Daniel learned how to wax cars, sand decks and paint fences. So if the martial arts thing doesn’t pan out he can always be a handyman.
What the film does get right is Jackie Chan as Mr. Han. Mr. Han is no Mr. Miyagi; the humor that made Miyagi so indelible is gone. Surprising since Chan is as much a comedian as an action star. The reason is explained in a scene where Mr. Han recounts to Dre a tragic incident of his life. This role allows Chan to show his dramatic side, while giving his marital arts skills a rest – mostly. As for the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, the charisma has certainly rubbed off on young Jaden. Still, the young upstart is no match for the wise handyman.
The Karate Kid will no doubt create a new legion of fans, as it will be a shared experience between parents who grew up with the original and children getting their first exposure to the series. Those who hold the original in high regard will like the subtle nods involving chopsticks and car wax. If the film is a hit here’s hoping in the sequel Jaden, who sports a fighting uniform like Bruce Lee, has to challenge Cheng’s much older brother, Yao Ming, in the final battle.
Director: Harald Swart Notable Cast: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson Writer(s): Christopher Murphey, based on a story by Robert Mark Kamen
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!