The Karate Kid. 140 mins. PG. Directed by Harald Zwart. Written by Christopher Murphey. Starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and Taraji P. Henson.
I'll be the first to admit that I had grave reservations about this loose remake of the 1984 classic starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, and those reservations were threefold. First, I love the original Karate Kid, and saw no need to revisit it and trample upon its memory so soon. Second, Jaden Smith kind of irritates me. He's not a bad actor (especially in Pursuit of Happyness), but he carries an air of attitude and overentitlement that just doesn't sit well with me. Third, Smith's character does kung-fu, NOT karate. Why isn't Sony calling this The Kung-Fu Kid?!
But pre-release expectations and conclusions are always a bad idea because, without having seen the movie, you can't really judge it. And boy, was I wrong. This new Karate Kid is fantastic. All of my reservations above were easily handled. The remake aspect? Only in theory really. The basic story remains the same (lonely kid seeks martial arts training from ornery old Asian man to overcome his fears and beat off bullies), but the filmmakers really do a nice job of coloring differently inside the lines. The setting has been changed to China, and that adds an entirely different atmosphere and some truly eye-popping locations. Smith? Not that annoying - this is a good role for him. He is relatable and an easygoing actor on screen. Though he doesn't quite have the chops yet, you can easily see him maturing into a competent, talented young actor as he ages. And the title? Well, that still doesn't make sense, but who cares when the movie is this crowd-pleasing? The audience I saw the movie with ate it up, and, yes, so did I. Hook, line, and sinker. The Karate Kid is rousing, old-fashioned entertainment done right, and it goes to show you that a good story is a good story no matter who came up with it first.
Smith plays Dre Parker, a 12 year-old normal kid from Detroit who is transferred to China when his single mom (Taraji P. Henson, classy) gets a job there. When he gets his butt kicked by a local bully, he seeks the assistance of maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) to help even the score. Cue the training montages. It all leads up to a fateful kung-fu tournament where Dre competes and (no spoiler here) wins.
While The Karate Kid lacks surprise and is overly long (at nearly 2.5 hours), it is charming and often exciting. The fight sequences are staged with maximum impact by director Harald Zwart, and it looks like these young teens take some serious blows, which adds to the intensity leading up to the final fight. Like most sports flicks, this is a wonderful underdog story, and it's the type of story that renders my critical defenses worthless. You can't help but get wrapped up in it, especially when the script and the actors do such a good job of avoiding gooey sentimentality and just keeping things simple and honest. I could have done without some of the intrusive pop songs though.
Chan in particular gives some of the best work of his career as Han. There's an emotional scene where Han breaks down and starts crying in a car that had me fighting off tears of my own. Han is not a jokey character like most other Chan creations - he's a real human being. James Horner's score gives the movie some extra dramatic weight, and, again, the China scenery is simply breathtaking at times. I can see some overly cynical audience members refusing to fall victim to this movie's spells, but I think they'd be the minority. This one's hard to resist.