If you were alive and out of diapers in North America in 1984, you probably remember Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita in The Karate Kid. If, like me, you were a teen back then, Mr. Miyaga's eccentric karate instruction methods ("wax on, wax off") have likely become a part of your pop culture psyche. The Karate Kid's enduring legacy makes the current remake seem inevitable. The question, of course, is whether the long shadow cast by the original makes the copy inevitably disappointing.
The answer: Yes and No. The new Karate Kid is not as good as the first. But it's not bad, either, and the reaction of youngsters at the screening I attended suggests viewers who haven't seen the original will definitely enjoy the new edition.
This time, our young hero is an African-American 12-year-old named Dre Parker (Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith), who is dislocated from his home in Detroit and plunked down in Beijing when his widowed mother is transferred by her employer. Dre is understandably unhappy with such an extreme move, but the charms of a violin-playing classmate named Meiying (Wenwen Han) get him thinking his new life might be OK. His optimism is short-lived, however, when a jealous local named Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) and his thuggish friends begin routinely delivering kung fu beatings to Dre for the crimes of being an outsider and catching the pretty girl's eye.
The situation continues to worsen until Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the reclusive maintenance man at Dre's apartment building, steps in to stop an attack and reveals his secret identity as a kung fu master. Mr. Han confronts Cheng's teacher, who is misapplying the martial arts and instructing his students to be on the attack and show no mercy. In an effort to remove the imminent threat of bodily harm facing Dre, Mr. Han promises that his soon-to-be protégé will fight Cheng and his cohorts individually at an upcoming kung fu tournament. All that remains is for Dre to learn the ancient art. Fast.
Even if you haven't seen the original, you can likely anticipate the rest of the plot. The fatherless Dre and the sonless Mr. Han forge a special bond, and the older mentors the younger in both the martial arts and the art of life in lots of picturesque, iconic Chinese locations. And then, of course, there's a whole bunch of fighting.
For the most part, this version of The Karate Kid follows the emotional arc of its predecessor very closely, with small adaptations to plot details along the way. The decision to set the story in China this time (and change the martial art to kung fu, making the title a bit of a misnomer) was an innovative one that allowed the filmmakers to intensify the fish-out-of-water quality of the story—and to mine plenty of beautiful and exotic locations. But the change in continents is explored rather one-dimensionally—Dre never attempts to learn the new language, and strangely enough everyone around him speaks to him in English, even when threatening to beat him half to death. Other tweaks to the plot have mixed results. The decision to make the hero much younger than in the original (thus allowing the film to be a vehicle for 11-year-old Smith) makes Dre and Meiying's love story awkward (a kissing scene in particular feels wildly inappropriate for 12-year-olds), and renders the violence in the film unsettling. One of the movie's funniest scenes, in which Mr. Han decimates the entire gang of boys by using them as weapons against each other, works better if viewers do not pause to reflect on the fact that we are watching a mature man beat up children who have not even reached their teens.
Other plot adaptations work fine on their own even if they pale next to the original. Mr. Miyaga's various methodologies from the 1984 version (waxing the car, painting the fence, the famous crane pose at the ocean shore) are here boiled down into one such device (Mr. Han makes Dre put his coat on and off ad nauseum); I was disappointed that the new teacher only had one such technique, but the kids I was with thought it was great. In fact, tellingly, while I pined for certain intricacies missing as compared to the first Karate Kid, my daughter whispered to me that she thought the movie was borrowing from 2008's Kung Fu Panda. I guess there's nothing too new under the Hollywood sun.
New or not, the filmmakers had enough material to make the film last a surprising 140 minutes. Fortunately, the cast is winsome enough to keep viewers reasonably engaged for the duration. Smith, who has clearly benefitted from the genetic endowment of parents Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, shows the same big screen magnetism that turned heads in The Pursuit of Happyness; even when his character is awash in sullen tween angst the boy is undeniably likable. In the so-obvious-it-works casting department, Jackie Chan gives us a Mr. Han who progresses from shuffling curmudgeon to charismatic master in immensely satisfying fashion. Tariji P. Henson is note-perfect as Dre's often-exasperated but ferociously loving mom, and Wenwen Han is utterly winsome as Dre's love interest.
There's no denying this edition of The Karate Kid packs enough star power, mines enough cinematic locations, and pushes enough underdog buttons to succeed. In fact, in comparison, the much smaller-budgeted, much less photogenic original was a scrawnier, humbler film. Considering the fact that both films tell the story of a little guy with a big heart coming out on top, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that while the second film is glossier, the first film is better. Still, good stories usually get told more than once, and even on the second go around this one's a winner.Discussion starters
- Dre was being bullied and wasn't sure where to turn. Have you ever been bullied? What did you do? What would you recommend to someone who is being bullied at school?
- Meiying's parents expected her to focus her time and energy on the violin. Do you think that was a reasonable expectation? Does the culture in which you were raised fairly estimate what children can and should accomplish?
- Mr. Han destroyed a car every year on the anniversary of his accident. Was this a reasonable way to deal with his grief? Is it helpful to observe anniversaries of sad events? What other ways would you suggest Mr. Han try coping with his loss?
- Dre ultimately faced his adversaries in a kung fu tournament. What do you think of sports that involve hand-to-hand combat? Is it possible to be a believer who "turns the other cheek" and still be a competitive boxer, wrestler or martial artist?
The Family Corner
The Karate Kid is rated PG for bullying, martial arts action violence, and some mild language. There are several scenes of prolonged martial arts violence, none of which bothered my 12-year-old but much of which was too intense for my 8-year-old. There is some mild language, most of which is spoken by the young protagonist, who is admonished by his mentor. Themes exploring respect for self and others may be good family discussion starters.
Photos © Columbia Pictures
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