This movie has nothing to do with Karate. However, other than that, this 2010 reboot/reworking/remake of the seminal 80s underdog flick, The Karate Kid, is a scene-for-scene, at times word-for-word modern update of the classic tale, albeit with the location changed (although even that was already done in the 80s sequel, The Karate Kid Part II). If you’ve seen the original – and, really, how many people haven’t? – then there are no surprises during the narrative of this newer, shinier version, which boasts the same, at times overlong, near two-and-a-half hour runtime. Still, don’t let all of the undeniable similarities fool you – this is one of the best remakes that I have ever come across.
For those who don’t recall, the story is simple. 12 year-old Dre Parker and his widowed mother, Sherry, are relocating from Detroit to Beijing, China. Joining the local school, Dre has some difficult settling in – not just because he is a Western foreigner with a poor grasp of Chinese, but also because he shows interest in one of the pretty local girls, angering the school’s bullies, who promptly set about making his life a misery. Trying to stand up for himself, Dre finds that his very limited fighting abilities are no match for the Kung Fu-trained kids, and promptly gets his ass kicked. Repeatedly. But when the maintenance man in his apartment block takes him under his wing, and offers him a chance to learn some real martial arts moves, Dre sets about trying to better himself so that he can finally challenge his oppressors at an organised Kung Fu tournament.
Almost everything about this movie works, and works really well. Updating the location to China makes the setting so much more interesting, the numerous sumptuous vistas that are showcased teetering on the brink of being a promotional campaign for all of the must-see sights in the unusual country: from the Forbidden City to the Great Wall; the Wudang mountain-base-set architecture a throwback to an ancient civilisation that many would have assumed was lost hundreds of years ago. It also allows the story an added dimension – here the child and his single mother have not only separated from the father, but he has actually passed away, giving the characters a more emotionally resonant core. Similarly they are not only strangers in a new State, but within a different Country – the language, the culture, it’s all foreign to them, adding to the sense of confusion and feeling totally out of place.
The bullying also rings true – arguably more so than with the original film – and, aside from the fighting being a bit over-the-top for a bunch of pre-pubescent kids (more on that later), you genuinely get the feeling that this is a relatively accurate depiction of the animosity you might feel if you rub some locals up the wrong way when moving in on their home turf. And, again following suit from its classic predecessor, the core of the film remains the same – a timeless tale of inspirational strength in the face of adversity; of loyalty, honour, and self-reliance. All part and parcel for a coming-of-age drama, which the original movie always was, beneath its overt Rocky-styled underdog story-arc.
But what truly makes this movie stand out above the rest is the cast, and what they bring to the familiar, arguably iconic characters. Will Smith’s young son, Jaden, steps into the shoes of Ralph Macchio’s Daniel-san, as Xiao-Dre (as he is nicknamed), and he is one of the two biggest reasons to watch this movie – and arguably the surprise element. I had no idea he would be this much like his dad, but he simply exudes Will Smith in every phrase, gesture, in every single mannerism. Fans of his Hollywood superstar father – who was great in everything from Bad Boys to Ali – will revel at noticing the warm, familiar touches in Dre’s behaviour. It’s a joy to behold that the son has inherited so much charisma (although I bet he's a precocious child for his parents to manage!), and even if these traits will not work as well to distinguish him when he grows older, right now he is basically a mini Will Smith – and just as witty and likeable as a result. His amusing but authentic relationship with his mother, played by Taraji P. Henson (from Benjamin Button and Smokin' Aces, and similarly on scene-stealing form here) is pitch-perfect, and peppers the runtime with engaging, occasionally heart-warming – but thankfully never saccharin-sweet – scenes.
The second of the two most important elements of this movie will, conversely, come as absolutely no surprise to many movie fans. Jackie Chan is, after all, a total legend. Honestly, I don't think he's ever been fully recognised in the West, despite landing a couple of successful comedy franchise roles (Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon); and even his acknowledgement back home in Hong Kong comes with the caveat that he doesn't do anything overtly serious. Which is a shame, because – as has been evidenced by some of his more recent efforts – he is more than just a modern physical comedy actor a la Buster Keaton / Charlie Chaplin.
Stepping into the equivalent role to Mr Miyagi, his Mr Han is just as stoic and reserved but, in my opinion, much more nuanced. His shaking hands and beleaguered look belaying a damaged lonely soul, his on-the-edge restraint in the face of extreme provocation is realistically portrayed, and could go almost totally unnoticed through his subtle portrayal. And the bond between him and the young, street-smart and wise-cracking Dre is evolved slowly and purposefully, so that – by the end – it genuinely feels as much of a life-changing father/son relationship as was evident in the original. Jackie deserves some serious kudos for his work here and, in case you missed the point, what I'm trying to say is that Jackie Chan can act, and that if you haven't seen evidence of that fact so far, then you should see him in this movie.
Of course a movie with martial arts in the title wouldn't be anything without, well, some decent fight sequences, and with Jackie Chan headlining your expectations would have to be high. Thankfully, you will not be disappointed. The movie contains some cracking confrontations between Dre and his bullying counterparts, plenty of training scenes between Jackie's Mr Han and Dre (including a tribute to the famous 'wax on, wax off' sequence – here it's 'jacket on, jacket off'), and then, of course, the closing tournament of successively punishing bouts. Jackie himself gets one standout scene, which is handled extremely well, where he has to take on the bunch of bullies but – in typical Jackie style, because they are kids – he cannot hit them. It's a great little scene, possibly the best fight sequence in the movie. (And watch out for a blink-and-you’ll miss it cameo from Chan’s female HK counterpart, and sometimes co-star, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actress Michelle Yeoh)
For all the praise – they get the warmly inspirational feel-good sentiment, the sumptuous setting, the recognised cast, the iconic characterisation, the script (although largely the same as the original, Jaden's Will Smith intonation is much more amusing) and the training (who wouldn't be a ninja after learning martial arts from Jackie Chan? It's more convincing than learning from Mr Miyagi!) all pitch perfect – the film is certainly not without its issues.
Some will hate the way in which it unflinchingly mimics its predecessor, with almost no deviation, some will just hate it because it's a remake. Personally, I found this modern update to work extremely well, as the project is brought to life in a very different, at times even better, style. But it is undeniably an uninspired rendition – reminiscent of the horrific scene-for-scene remake of the classic Psycho in its slavish imitation of the original, and prompted, no doubt, by the cash registers ringing in the Sony offices. Ironically, I actually think that the few points at which there is a deviation from the '84 movie are the moments where things don't hold up as well. This time around the lead character is never shown to be learning some kick-ass move (which will come in handy at the end), so his final fight move comes as a totally ludicrous, over-the-top manoeuvre that I doubt even Jackie Chan is actually capable of pulling off. Wire-work-tastic. Also, the random inclusion of a snake-charming / Jedi mind-trick allusion, whereby fighters can purportedly hypnotise their opponents, is a bit unnecessary – and a bit far-fetched.
In the same fashion the training sequences do not have fantastic continuity. After putting on and taking off his jacket a stupid number of times (unlike in the original, there is no possible reason why he would do this, as he states, 1000 times, without asking what the hell the purpose is behind it) he suddenly – rather implausibly – becomes some kind of Kung Fu master, able to block Jackie Chan's lightning-fast moves as if he had been learning the martial art for several decades. It just doesn't work. And sure, Jaden Smith has clearly trained hard in preparation for the movie, but there's something quite unsettling about seeing a shirtless 12 year old boy looking totally ripped because he can do a hundred push-ups on his thumbs. Nobody that age should have a body like that – surely it's not natural, given your muscle mass hasn't progressed far enough, and given the fact that a child's body hasn't fully developed?!
I also think the ending was totally anticlimactic. Don't get me wrong, we get the succession of martial arts tournament bouts, which are pretty entertaining – if far too brutal considering this is a bunch of pre-pubescent boys who are punching and kicking each other across the room – but the film ends pretty abruptly afterwards. And for a near two-and-a-half-hour movie, it just does not work. If you watch the extras, you will see the scene that follows – which is much more in-line with the outcome that you wanted from the movie (and is the same as the beginning of the original Karate Kid Part II) but, unfortunately, was a little bit too much to include in the final cut. It featured Jackie Chan in action and just goes on way too long, totally overshadowing the kid's climactic fights that preceded it. Still, the ending that we do get is just too abrupt for such a long movie which has had such a substantial build-up.
And yes, there is a problem with the title. For a movie that’s totally about Kung Fu, and has no Karate in it, why is it still called The Karate Kid? The feeble (official) explanation is because the Chinese kids mock Dre once, calling him ‘Karate kid’ after they first see him take up a stance to fight them at the beginning. The real reason behind it, of course, is purely business savvy. Calling it The Karate Kid immediately evokes fond memories of the original 80s movie, and clearly defines it as being part of a franchise which bears the same title and the same story. And, honestly, I can see why they did not call it The Kung Fu Kid in the West (which is its title in China and some other East Asia territories). Sure, it’s an infinitely more accurate title, but there are too many ‘silly’ films out there (good comedies, but ones which are definitely not to be taken seriously in any way, shape or form) which utilise ‘Kung Fu’ in the title (like Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Hustle) for ‘The Kung Fu Kid’ to be taken as seriously as it needed to be. I know this isn’t an Oscar contender, but neither is it slapstick silliness, and it needs a title which will not belittle its significantly dramatic core. I’m happy with things the way they are, even if the title is not really very respectful of the martial art it truly portrays.
All in all though, this is an extremely enjoyable, worthy remake. For all the complaints out there (and addressed above) I suspect many of them have been levelled at the film without having actually seen it. The reality is that it is a whole lot of fun, not deviating from the original's tried-and-tested formula, but instead imbuing the already inspirational, feel-good, coming-of-age, underdog sentiments with a breath of fresh air, a quality dose of Jackie Chan on top form (and not just as a fighter, but also as an actor) and an undeniable amount of charisma that comes in perfect Will Smith fashion from his (no doubt destined to be a superstar) son, Jaden. You'll want to watch the movie for Jackie's moves, but you'll likely end up loving it for the Jackie/Jaden combo performance. They make a great team, and this is a great remake of an undisputed classic. Recommended.
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