A film review by Craig J. Koban June 18, 2010


2010, PG, 140 mins.


Dre Parker: Jaden Smith / Mr. Han: Jackie Chan / Sherry Parker: Taraji P. Henson / Meiying: Han Wenwen

Directed by Harald Swart / Written by Christopher Murphey, based on a story by Robert Mark Kamen

The original 1984 KARATE KID was one of the more unexpectedly entertaining and moving films of its year.  I think that the overall key to its success with audiences and critics was how it defied expectations.  Yes, the film followed the ROCKY formula of the proverbial downtrodden underdog that – through training from wise mentor, dedication, and perseverance – proves his detractors wrong by overcoming all odds in the end.  The John G. Avildsen 80’s classic did not strike a cord with viewers because of its more perfunctory sports clichés and genre conventions.  No, the real key to the modest power of the film was the way it chronicled the budding surrogate father/son relationship between the underdog teen and the old sage figure that serves as his teacher.  

THE KARATE KID was one of 1984’s most surprisingly affecting portraits of friendship and one of the most beloved and remembered films of my childhood movie-going life.  It is also, in my opinion, an indelible part of the pop culture of 1980’s cinema.  Pat Morita’s iconic portrayal of the Yoda-esque karate sensei, Mr. Miyagi – nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor – emerged as one of the decade’s most serenely authoritative and the character’s unorthodox teaching mantras (wax on, wax off) have become a part of the popular lexicon.  The notion of a remaking such an overwhelmingly cherished and familiar family film seemed like utter sacrilege to me when word leaked that it was occurring.  

How could a film that had such a wonderful freshness and originality about it be possibly remade into an equally fresh new film interpretation? 

This new KARATE KID – like its predecessor – is an entertainment that too, in its own unique ways, transcends expectations of mediocrity.  The great film remakes, I have always attested, have to do two things exceedingly well: (a) they have to maintain a sense of faithfulness (without being slavish) to their source material while (b) taking the very recognizable material and tweaking it just right to make it seem unsullied and new again.  For that criteria, the new KARATE KID more than holds up its end of the bargain.  This is a near flawless remake for how it adeptly and slyly takes the overall story that all Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita aficionados hold dear and then it updates it and cleverly transplants it to a new environment.  In doing so it also manages to maintain the thematic essence of the original.  Not only does this new film feel wholeheartedly novel apart from the original, it still is able to hone in on what made the 1984 entry so special: the powerful  cross-generational relationship presented within. 

On paper, the new KARATE KID is almost a page-for-page retread of the original Robert Mark Kamen penned script.  The characters, relationships, certain lines of dialogue, and the finale have not been deviated from in any way.  Anyone that has seen the original KARATE KID will not be left in the dark as to what its ultimate climax will entail.  Yet, the new film miraculously pays homage to the original while making so many other subtle, but clear cut alterations: Firstly, this film involves kung fu, not karate (see my REVIEW ADDENDUM below); the youthful hero is played by a much younger 11-year-old actor playing a 12-year-old instead of the mid-twenties Macchio playing a teen; there is no “wax on, wax off” training regiment and no crane technique that pays off big late in the film; and this time the original’s prime location of California has been replaced by China.  Even the film’s martial arts instructor here has only a vague and fleeting resemblance to Morita’s Mr. Miyagi.  The importance of the similarities and changes here are twofold: Firstly, the new KARATE KID is a grounded film that wisely does not overplay its cards to the point where it becomes some sort of obstinate spoof of the original.  Secondly, it wants to remind us – as the first one did – of the strength of clean and precise storytelling and involving performances have in immersing us in the overall story. 



The weakling fish-out-of-water this time is a 12-year-old African American Detroit native named Dre Parker (played by Jaden Smith, son of Will, in a career defining performance) who is traveling with his mother (the very decent and dependable Taraji P. Henson) from the U.S. to their new home in China for work related reasons (although it is never really specified why the mom would have to make such a large scale move for the sake of work).  Of course, Dre – perhaps even more so than Macchio’s adolescent underdog – is hopelessly suffering from culture shock in his new environment.  He tries to make friends, and does so with a very pretty – and conveniently English speaking – young girl named Meiying (a warm-hearted and sincere Wenwen Han in the Elizabeth Shue role), but as he grows closer to her, another schoolboy named Cheng (played with a believable venomous hostility by Zhenwei Wang) develops an instant hatred for Dre. 

From here the new story sways very little for the 1984 version: Dre and Cheng have a series of encounters, which typically involves Dre being thrashed (and rather viciously) by Cheng.  After one attempt by Dre to enact some sort of revenge against his bully goes horribly afoul, he is beaten to a near bloody pulp outside his apartment building, but is thankfully saved by a quite, unassuming, but incredibly dexterous for his age Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the apartment handyman.  Realizing that the fairly feeble looking Han is actually a kung fu god from above, Dre pleads with him to help him in his quest to reclaim some honor from his school oppressors.  Han is very reticent at first, but after he accompanies Dre to the kung fu academy that Cheng trains at – and realizes that his master is a “strike hard, strike fast, no mercy” sociopath – Han agrees to train Dre in the proper path of kun fu so that he can face Cheng and his clan in a winner take all tournament.  

Cue the highly eccentric training methods (this time involving endless drills involving taking on and off a jacket); cue training montages, cue relationship woes between Dre and Meiying that are reconciled; and cue the final battle.  Nothing at all here transpires unpredictably. 

Yet, what is so unpredictable about this new KARATE KID interpretation is…well…its interpretation of the material.  One of the masterstrokes of this re-imagining is how it transplants the locales of Southern California from the original to China, and under the auspices of cinematographer Robert Pratt (1989’s BATMAN, TROY, and two HARRY POTTER entries), the lush and oftentimes epically beautiful scenery of the Chinese locales (like the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and so on) provide a sense of cultural discovery for the young antagonist that was not present even in the 1984 version.  This KARATE KID is so visually generous in the details: it’s handsome and absorbing for both taking the hero and viewers into a foreign land and making it both a place unapproachably unfamiliar and hospitably inviting and sumptuous at the same time.  This is a surprisingly beautiful travelogue film to simply gaze at and it shows the prime virtues of location shooting over faking it in on a Hollywood backlot or via lame CGI.  As a result, THE KARATE KID feels much more genuine. 

Even more genuine and heartfelt is – most crucially – the central bond between Dre and Mr. Han and, much like its antecedent, the script and performances are adeptly grounded with a stirring sweetness and authenticity.    The casting in both important roles is absolutely crucial: I have only seen Jaden Smith a few films (like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS), but his portrayal of the Daniel Larusso doppelganger manages to evoke a childlike cuteness and naiveté with a headstrong tenacity.  Jaden is clearly Will’s kid: he has a sort of easy-going vitality and the instant affability of his dad.  Even better is that he has great screen presence and understands how to make his character’s arc feel tangible: that of of a cocky kid that’s in way over his head that is nurtured into a more mature prepubescent that learns virtues of discipline, honor, humility, and self-respect from his teacher.   For such a young actor, it’s amazing how Smith maintains our rooting interest in him, not to mention how he carries the film. 

Chan, however, has the more impossible task of taking on and appropriating one of the most acknowledged and memorable characters from 80’s filmdom and somehow not turn it into a lazy impersonation of Morita’s legendary, career high work.  What’s fascinating here is that – considering Chan’s career of fusing slapstick comedy and goofy charm in so many martial arts roles – he does not play his Miyagi-clone as a warm, wise-cracking, and humorous guru.  Han has past wounds like Miyagi – brought to the forefront during a drunken confessional at a key point in the film – by he is a much more wounded, stern, and solemn figure.  What makes Chan so sneakily effectual here is how he makes this sensei to the youth as quietly commanding as Morita, but the tone and feel of the vital role is unquestionably different.  Chan, no doubt, is right at home with the stunts and kung fu theatrics here, but this is one of his very few mainstream Hollywood films where you sense him inhabiting a role and underplaying it with a real sensitive precision.  Chan has not been this effectively restrained and refined in a role in an awfully long time.  All is forgiven for THE SPY NEXT DOOR.

The retooled KARATE KID is not flawless: the film runs at 140 minutes, which may seem like a punishing endurance test for most, but it goes by fairly quickly (a tighter and leaner 110-120 minute cut would have been honorable enough).  The child antagonist play by Zhenwei Wang - although suitably imposing -  is almost improbably sadistic and brutal in the film (William Zabka certainly laid a beating on Macchio in the original, but here the smack downs perpetrated by Wang are more bone-crunchingly ferocious).  Yet, THE KARATE KID-redux is as crafty of a revelation as its predecessor: We get a film (directed by PINK PANTHER 2 helmer, Harold Swart, definitely not inspiring initial confidence) that skillfully and confidently takes well-known cinematic lore and forges ahead to make a family entertainment that stands on its own two feet.  Even with Smith and Chan forging great chemistry on screen and making their characters feel wholly unique from their past counterparts, the quintessence of the treasured 1984 film is still here that intuitively focuses in on the unlikely connection between two wounded souls who respectively pass on life lessons to the each other.   

This is precisely how remakes need to be handled.



This film is called "THE KARATE KID" despite the fact that there is no karate in it whatsoever.  It is rightfully called THE KUNG FU KID in China.  At least the Chinese appreciates and respects the intelligence of its film viewers for being able to understand that this is a remake of THE KARATE KID without unnecessarily re-using the title to reinforce it.

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