By Marty Mulrooney
The original The Karate Kid was a pure slice of 1980’s fun, celebrating the underdog for children in much the same way Rocky had done for adults. Three sequels followed but none of them could match the charm of the original. This 2010 remake certainly sounds no better on paper: Karate has been swapped for kung fu although the title remains the same. Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is a 12-year-old from Detroit who has recently moved to China with his mother, taking centre stage as our new protagonist. Finally, the iconic role of Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) has been reinvented as Mr Han, played by Jackie Chan. I really didn’t know what to expect from this remake, but positive word of mouth encouraged me to enter the cinema with an open mind at least…
… and I ended up exiting the cinema with an open mouth. This is a perfect example of how to update a classic film with respect and at the same time create something entirely new and fresh that can stand upon its own two feet. There is a genuine charm here that easily matches what was so appealing in the original. Forget karate. Forget kung fu. The performances of Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan are at the heart of The Karate Kid; everything else is secondary. That isn’t to say that the martial arts scenes aren’t well implemented: they are. But the acting is quite simply superb.
Dre Parker is a child out of his depth, a stranger in a foreign land. Chatting with Mei Ying (Wen Wen Han) at a nearby playground offers some respite from his jetlag, but he is promptly given a rough welcome when another child, Cheng, decides to use kung fu to send him a clear message: stay away. Dre puts up a fight but is no match for Cheng and his friends, resulting in a black eye and a battered ego. Things improve little when Dre attends school; a friendship continues to blossom with violinist Mei Ying whilst kung fu student Cheng and his classmates bully Dre at every available opportunity. His life quickly becomes a misery.
It is during one particularly violent encounter that the reclusive Mr Han steps in, quickly taking care of Cheng and his friends in a wonderfully choreographed fight scene. It may be predictable cinema, but you almost want to leap out of your seat and cheer as the diminutive Dre is rescued by this near-mute repairman with a mysterious past. Both the original and the remake share several similarities and repeated motifs. It therefore comes as no surprise that soon after this fight Mr Han begins to teach Dre kung fu so he can compete in an upcoming tournament against the bullies, the result of a botched confrontation with their violent teacher, Master Li (Yu Rongguang).
The majority of the film is of course centred around Mr Han teaching Dre kung fu. Thankfully, the remake chooses to portray this in its own unique style, rather than simply mimicking the original. Wax on, wax off has cleverly been substituted here with Dre taking off his jacket, dropping in on the floor, picking it up, putting it on, and then repeating the entire process ad nauseam. When Mr Han finally relents and teaches via some more traditional methods, the extensive process Dre has gone through feels real and tangible. The greatest success of The Karate Kid is that it takes a fantastical tale and manages to root it firmly in reality. Coupled with some breathtaking scenery and strong cinematography, The Karate Kid takes you on a gripping journey.
Yet as wonderful as these moments are, it is only when combined with the film’s more emotional moments that this journey becomes wholly worthwhile. It is always a pleasant surprise to find genre films that will go the extra mile to envelop you. Dre’s friendship with Mei Ying is handled very well, avoiding many of the traps that can be fallen into when dealing with romances between younger actors. These moments also convey a likeability factor that Jaden Smith has seemingly inherited from his father. Some of his expressions practically scream Wii Smith (who also produced the film) and I can see a bright future for this young star. He is never anything less than charming and believable.
Jackie Chan compliments this performance perfectly with a portrayal so humble and broken that it genuinely moved me. I have always liked the man but generally thought of him more as a stuntman than an actual actor (especially in his Hollywood endeavours). Here, he proves this is not the case at all. He is both gentle and loveable as Mr Han, wisely choosing to shape the character from scratch rather than base him on the iconic Mr Mayagi. The result is a character who can charm with a smile even when oozing immense sadness. One moment in particular has Dre sitting with Mr Han in his disused car, his past finally laid bare. It is both beautiful and heartbreaking to watch. Emotional without ever feeling cheap, it may well be one of my favourite scenes of 2010. Jackie Chan thrills in The Karate Kid not with his kung fu, but with his first class acting.
Not everything is perfect of course. Cultural divides have been dealt with far more effectively elsewhere (Lost In Translation) and parts of The Karate Kid can admittedly feel stereotypical and weak. Of course, with a film such as this it could be argued that the focus is on a fantastical tale, a fantasy for every bullied child out there. Therefore, these moments do little to damage the momentum of the narrative overall, (this isn’t a deep movie at heart) but they are still present nonetheless. This occasional artificiality extends to Dre’s mother Sherry as well (Taraji Penda Henson) who can sometimes feel more like a necessity of the script rather than a fully developed character. Chan and Smith are always the focus and it is undeniably due to their strong performances that an occasionally weak script is elevated to a higher plain.
The final scenes of The Karate Kid is where the viewer must suspend their disbelief the most. Buy into the fact that this skinny 12-year-old kid from Detroit could learn kung fu from a Chinese maintenance man and go on to compete against experienced native martial artists, and you will struggle to find a more exciting climax to a mainstream film (with indie undertones) this summer. The is feel-good cinema, a movie made specifically to leave you feeling uplifted as the lights come back on and the credits roll. A slightly abrupt finish will only leave you wanting more. This isn’t a perfect film, but it doesn’t pretend to be either. Exciting and uplifting, this could well be the surprise hit of 2010.
8 OUT OF 10
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