In 1984 the world was introduced to the concept of "wax on, wax off." The family targeted film told a story of overcoming obstacles and believing in yourself. The Karate Kid turned out to be a big hit as it was the fifth biggest film of the year and led to an Oscar nomination for Pat Morita's iconic performance as Mr. Miyagi, the zen-like handyman and martial arts instructor. The film became a centerpiece for a generation. I remember loving it when I was a youth, and still do (although some elements seem a bit dated). What helped the film succeed was the uplifting nature and the complete absence of cynicism in the face of what is, admittedly, a cliched plot. Now we have a new take on the old material. Is there any chance of matching its success?
When I first heard about this project, I was less than enthused. I am not really against remakes, but this did not seem like one I wanted to see. Then I learned that Jaden Smith would be the lead, and I wanted to see it even less than before. Jackie Chan was the next name to come out, and I wanted to see it a little bit more as I do like me some Jackie Chan! Still, there was no way they can replace Pat Morita nor anyway they can recapture the energy and effect the original had. Of course, who is to say they were trying? Perhaps they just saw a way of telling the story in a different way.
Well, the trailer came and I was shocked to find it looked pretty good. All right, I am sold. I'll check it out, and so I did. I went. I saw, I conquered. I walked out with a smile on my face. Yes, it is true; this new Karate Kid is very good, surprisingly so. It offers nothing new, and I mean nothing, but it succeeds in other ways. They did not need to update the story; they just needed to execute in the modern fashion.
While this new film follows the original beat for beat, it changes almost all of the window dressing. Instead of California it's China; instead of karate it's kung fu (and they did briefly consider retitling the film), and the cast is made considerably younger, but it is all dressing. The story still hits all of the same beats in the same order.
Dre (Smith) and his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) move to China when her job is transferred across the Pacific. Young Dre is none too pleased about the move; he is leaving his friends, does not know the language, and suffers from having lost his father some years before. So, like Daniel LaRusso did before him, Dre immediately finds the pretty girl and draws the attention of the school bullies. Following a few beatings, the building handyman, this time being Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), reveals himself as a martial arts master.
This reveal leads to a deal with the bad guy and a lengthy training sequence that sees our young hero be broken down and rebuilt as a better version of himself. He is taught to believe in himself and realize that not everything is as it appears. He also finds a father figure in Mr. Han who seems to need a son as badly as Dre needs a father.
Again, if you have seen the original, there are no surprises here. The film succeeds because of a few things. First is the screenplay by Christopher Murphey, based on Robert Mark Kamen's original 1984 story. It is not the greatest screenplay ever, but it successfully captures the atmosphere of the original. It uses the cliches to its benefit. There is not an ounce of cynicism in this film. Much like the original it does not tell a new story, but it finds a way of telling it in no less an effective manner than others of the same ilk. It rings true even when it so obviously dives into fantasy (no, not the magic and dragons fantasy, more the fantasy of the ideal situation).
Another reason this works is the acting. In particular both Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan are downright fantastic. Smith has come a long way from his performance in The Day the Earth Stood Still. The young actor really captures what it may be like. He has the right inflections, emotion, body movements. Jaden brings Dre to life and I see bright things in his future. As for Chan, he is someone never really known for his acting, but her succeeds at giving us a well rounded character that is Mr. Miyagi by not being Mr. Miyagi. Chan dials back the charm and gives us a restrained character with a powerful emotional arc of his own. Not to mention his centerpiece fight sequence is simply spectacular.
Direction from Harald Zwart (Pink Panther 2) is solid, well paced, and makes great use of the location shoot in Beijing. He keeps the movie going while also letting the actors carry the scenes. He is even able bring drama and tension to the tournament. Even knowing what is going to come, I was still on the edge of my seat. I also loved the training shadow sequence that shows a transition from the iconic "crane" pose from the original film to the high kick pose of this new film.
I was seriously prepared to not like this movie or, at the very least, not care for it. I was won over. This is a solid film that will make everyone smile. It's a strong family film that does not glorify violence, condone disrespect, or allow bad behavior to slide. It is a movie that believes in the family. It has good values to go along with its well executed story.
Also, it may not be karate, but the name makes sense considering how much it resembles its namesake. Personally, I prefer watching kung fu to karate, and this film does a good job of putting the style on display and relating it to the world around it.
Now, I will always prefer the original film as it has a strong place in my childhood memory, but I have to say that this film may have executed the story better. It doesn't hurt that Smith's performance is a lot stronger than Ralph Macchio's.