You're a wonderful film, Karate Kid. You're Back to the Future. You're E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. You're Rocky. And if you weren't branded and scripted as a remake no one would challenge your virtues.
The Karate Kid is about a young boy, Dre (Jaden Smith), who moves to China with his mother (Taraji P. Henson). Dre quickly attracts a gang of brutal, kung fu bullies. After much torment Dre is assisted by his building's maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who teaches Dre kung fu to defend himself.
The Karate Kid has that bright underdog joy that shines onto film screens. It has those moments we replay in our minds that remind us to have courage. The film may not be an innovative underdog or Karate Kid movie but its actors convey the film's message with conviction. Mr. Han grabs Dre's wrist while they train. He pats Dre's knuckles firmly and nods. "Strong," he says. His words are strained from their emotional weight. His voice almost cracks as he repeats, "Always strong."
In the original, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) was a pillar of sage advice, sayings, and strength. Mr. Han, however, is weak. He has a busted car in his living room. He never drives. He's afraid of people. He won't say why. It allows a more complex sensei/disciple relationship as they seek strength in kung fu and each other.
The film never allows us to forget Dre is different or unwanted. Dre wears his school uniform on the wrong day. In his school and his building there are inexplicable herds of white kids, but no black kids. The first thing a girl asks him is if she can touch his hair because she's never seen black hair before.
When Variety confirmed production on The Karate Kid they used a phrase that attracted bad critic karma. They said that the film "…has been refashioned as a star vehicle for Jaden Smith." The producers of the film are Jerry Weintraub (The Karate Kid, The Karate Kid Part II, The Karate Kid Part III), James Lassiter (Seven Pounds, Hancock, I Am Legend, Ali), Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Overbrook Entertainment (Will Smith's production company). This really only matters if you don't like Will Smith because Jaden's performance is certainly infused with what he calls "the power of Will."
Still, the film has flaws. The mother is transferred to China from a car factory position in Detroit. Why not hire local workers for less money? How important could her job be? We are never told. When Dre does not answer phone calls late one night his mother is uncharacteristically quiet when she finds him with Mr. Han. Some characters are impossibly accepting of Dre's existence in China. These flaws serve either mood or overall plot but they are like tiny cracks in the glass you have to pretend you don't see.
The original Karate Kid saw Pat Morita nominated for an Academy Award. His gentle confidence and endearing speech are a minor film legacy. Some talk of a similar honor for Chan but a greater compliment is that his work would make Morita proud.