For many, the 1984 classic "The Karate Kid" signals a time in pop culture when coming of age films were fast reaching their pinnacle. Just to have an idea, other teenage classics, such as "Sixteen Candles" and "Footloose," also came out that year. It was such a phenomenon that Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award in his memorable role as the wise fly-catching Asian mentor Mr. Miyagi. It introduced to the world the famous "Crane Kick," a fictional karate move that for anyone at that time between the ages of eight years and older was at least attempted once in their backyard. Yet what made "The Karate Kid" so well-received by audiences has a lot to do with its underdog formula. It is a fish out of water story about Jersey teen Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) who moves to California, fights off attacking bullies, and finds love through the "art" of learning karate. It renewed America’s love affair with martial arts which had not been as popular since Bruce Lee came out with "Enter the Dragon," and is ranked amongst the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Inspiring Films. With so much significance, the news of "The Karate Kid" remake produced by Will Smith set off alarms for fans of the franchise. How would this story be revised? Was it even necessary? The answer comes this weekend as the film makes its way nationwide.
Written by: Christopher Murphey (screenplay) and Robert Mark Kamen (story)
Starring: Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan
It’s been 26 years since the original film hit theaters, and the world is far less ideal onscreen. The daunting task of remaking this classic comes in the aftermath of a year already spent in an 80s reboot havoc from "Nightmare on Elm Street" to "The A-Team." So does "The Karate Kid" measure up to its predecessor? Here are some things you need to know first: The film is directed by Harald Zwart ("Pink Panther 2") and the scale for this production is grand, as in it’s actually shot in China. The fights are a lot more violent, and the film is 140 minutes. So parents, if you plan on bringing the kiddies, make an exit plan as it’s certain there will be fussing around. The film stars action hero Jackie Chan as Mr. Han, a maintenance man, who also happens to be a secret kung fu master, and Jaden Smith (yes, Will Smith’s son) as Dre Parker, a troubled young American who seeks his guidance.
As it turns out, Dre is in China because his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) has been transferred from her job at an auto manufacturing factory in Detroit to Beijing. Much like the original film’s protagonist, Dre has a hard time adjusting to his new home. The stakes are raised because there’s the language barrier and cultural divide. This becomes apparent in Dre’s star-crossed love story with Mei Ying. While trying to impress Mei Ying in the park where they meet for the first time, Dre gets on the bad side of the local bully, Cheng. Cheng is described by Mei Ying as the son of a "close family friend." He’s someone who potentially has feelings for her which means this can’t end well. Cheng and his gang make Dre’s life hell, harassing him at every opportunity and beating the boy into a pulp. It’s a wonder Dre isn’t in a body cast at some point with the amount of kicks he takes to the chest. It isn’t until Mr. Han intervenes in the story that the film picks up speed. After defending Dre from Cheng, Mr. Han plans to remedy the situation by approaching Cheng’s kung fu instructor, Mr. Li (Yu Rongguang), whose take-no-prisoner mentality is a perfect counterpart to the John Kreese instructor in the original version. Things don’t end as planned, and Dre finds he must enroll in the city kung fu tournament if he plans on being left alone. If not, he’ll be harassed mercilessly. Mr. Han offers to be Dre’s teacher. We quickly find instead of waxing up a car like in the original, Dre practices putting on and taking off his jacket. Apparently, repetition is the key in being a kung fu master, especially if it relates to anything resembling a chore. The montage sequences of training are fun and satisfying, living up to the hype.
There will definitely be two camps of fans for this film: those who love it for its fun factor and action scenes, and those who find the flaws glaring and the length excessive. So what’s the verdict? If you’re determined to watch the film in theaters, make it a matinee: it definitely isn’t worth a regular ticket price. It’s enjoyable if you keep your expectations low, and don’t expect to see something entirely original. It’s a typical summer blockbuster film with all the elements you’d expect to find: big names, big production value, and lots of action â€” although most of the fight scenes happen very late in the film. If you’re on the fence, here’s a breakdown of the pro and cons.
Why it works
Casting — The actors chosen for each role are great. If anyone could flawlessly work those action scenes, it’s Jackie Chan. Chan flawlessly plays the mentor role, and makes it his own. Then there’s Taraji P. Henson, who deserves a lot of props for playing Dre’s strong mother, Sherry. She’s a very likable scene stealer. Zhenwei Wang plays Dre’s bully, Cheng. He’s remarkable in playing the villain, with his death-like dagger of a stare. Jaden Smith shines in showing his range. The film clearly pitches his range and marketability by showing his comedic and dramatic skills. The young actor handles the waterworks spot on in a calm and restrained style, reminiscent of his father’s brand of acting. He has a unique way of connecting with audiences in his more somber scenes, and when you see Jackie Chan cry alongside him, it’s moving. Smith has you genuinely rooting for him when the scene demands it.
Action — The action sequences live up to its dramatic promise, and in later parts of the film we’re shown a bit more of the origins to real "kung fu," the part where we understand the nature of it behind the violence shown by Cheng and the bullies.
Location — The landscape and cinematography are some of the film’s strengths as we view sequences of mountainsides and sleek city streets. One particular scene takes place in China’s Forbidden City: the beauty of the architecture is stunning. The camera sweeps through massive tall doors, and suddenly it’s a d©j -vu of Bernardo Bertolucci’s "The Last Emperor." China is its own character in the film, and the director spares no expense in reminding the audience.
Shout-Outs to the Original — It was nice to see little elements thrown out there, like Dre using his skateboard, and the Cobra references. For fans of the original, the film does acknowledge it despite being heavy-handed at times with the plot.
Why it doesn’t
Storyline/Plot — The main problem with the film is its attempt to bottle elements from both the original in with its new direction. It’s almost as if they fused the entire love story element from "The Karate Kid II" and mashed it up with the training from the original "The Karate Kid." When a remake goes to great lengths to stand out as "new and improved," it doesn’t need to entirely hold onto its original platform. The film could have been redeemed by simply taking out excessive chunks of the love story, like when Dre and Mei Ying sneak out of school and travel through the city. The next ten minutes feels forced, as if you’re watching a commercial spot for Beijing’s department of tourism. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just unnecessary and easily could have been saved for the film’s inevitable sequel.
East vs West — You can’t escape the clear line drawn between the "us vs them" mentality the film showcases. While kung fu may be a beloved art form, the film gives in to the stereotypes we’re used to associating with Asians: The disciplined parents, submissive daughter, the honor code, and even "ancient Chinese remedies" for healing the body. "The Karate Kid" isn’t an in-depth film by any means, but it doesn’t go out of its way to prevent further stereotypes. The only thing it lacked was the mathematically-gifted sidekick.
Another awkward moment happens when Cheng basically tells Dre in no uncertain terms to stick to his own kind. Now, what kind is that? On the one hand you can take it for face value and say it’s because he’s a foreigner and Westernized, so Cheng is acting territorial. On the other, some can see it as hinting towards the fact that Dre is black. It’s not unheard of in China, considering an article in last year’s UK Telegraph which exposed the racial stigma over blackness and interracial relationships.
As long as you suspend your disbelief and buy into the heart of the story, the film is enjoyable, but doesn’t surpass some of the more charismatic elements of the original.