Now you’re messing with my childhood! That was my initial response to the news of a Karate Kid remake. While I hardly hold the 1984 original on the same pedestal as many others my age, I regard it as one of the finest “underdog” movies ever. It was formula (though it wasn’t quite as much of a formula back then) filmmaking at its best, thanks to the great casting, warm tone, and involving characters. By now everyone knows the drill, but this new Karate Kid proves that the formula still has life.
The film opens in Detroit, where young Dre (Smith) and his mother, Sherry (Henson), are packing up their apartment and moving to China due to Sherry’s job relocation. As expected, things don’t go smoothly for Dre. He has to learn a whole new culture and language, not to mention deal with the bullies who harass him daily. One day, the maintenance man for their apartment building, Mr. Han (Chan), comes to Dre’s defense during a fight. Han is a master, and the event sparks a friendship between the two that leads to Dre learning not only the physical, but also mental, elements of kung fu.
Christopher Murphey’s screenplay takes nearly an hour to really get going (the film runs an extended 140 minutes), but it does manage to hit all of the right emotional notes. In some ways, this film is a bit harder to swallow because the kids are so much younger than in the 1984 original. The punishment is laid on thick as Dre is beat up three times in the opening hour, and it’s not easy to take because he’s so much smaller than his aggressors. Once his training with Han kicks in, however, things click all the way to the crowd-pleasing finish.
It’d be easy to write off Jaden Smith as getting this part because of his rich and powerful parents, but the kid’s got chops. Dre isn’t really all that interesting of a character out of the gate, but he becomes more engaging as Han teaches him the ways of the culture and kung fu. Smith plays the latter half of the film with great energy, and his attitude winds up as infectious. Chan plays the role of Han fairly straight, though his emotional explanation of the damaged car in his home is very effective. Chan gets his usual laughs, but he brings extra layers of resonance to Han.
The temptation is there to over-analyze why the location and races of the characters are changed, but it hardly matters. We know going in who will win the big match, as is the case with most formula sports pictures. What always makes the difference is how the film arrives at that conclusion. The Karate Kid brings warmth, understanding, and a hero to root for. I’m not saying a nod to Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best Around” wouldn’t have been genius, but as a feel-good, crowd-pleasing summer offering, it’s more than adequate.
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Length: 140 Minutes
Rating: PG for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language.
Theatrical Release: June 11, 2010
Directed by: Harald Zwart
Written by: Christopher Murphey. Story by Robert Mark Kamen.
Cast: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Rongguang Yu