When you walk into the theater to see yet another remake, expectations run wild from one end of the spectrum to the other. Will it suck as many tend to or will it take you by surprise and win you over? With some recent remakes, reboots or reimaginings it has definitely been a case of win/lose. While you may love a particular franchise, sometimes that’s all that keeps you from downright loathing the updated version (I’m looking at you, Nightmare on Elm Street).
When it comes to this year’s The Karate Kid it also doesn’t help that you have zero faith in the director because all he’s brought in the past is children-friendly drivel by way of The Pink Panther 2 and Agent Cody Banks. Thankfully, somewhere along the way Harald Zwart has either learned a thing or two behind the camera or was just working with such inept scripts to begin with that the final products were all he was able to muster.
When basing a remake on such a beloved product of its era, debut screenwriter Christopher Murphey took Robert Mark Kamen’s original story, placed it in a totally new arena to play with, and came up with his own new characters. These are just the beginning of many tactics that work so well you may just forget there ever was a Daniel-San. But of course one would have to be the most ignorant cinema-goer to forget about Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi.
Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is being uprooted by his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson), from Detroit to China. While they may be living in the “Beverly Hills” apartment complex, it is not the Beverly Hills of Dre’s choice. He does meet instant friend Harry (Luke Carberry) and has a run-in with the apartment complex's maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan in this version's Miyagi role) when their hot water isn’t working.
While playing basketball out in the park with Harry, Dre is instantly smitten with Meiying (Wenwen Han) while she’s practicing her violin on a park bench. He instantly puts on an American ritual of showing off his dance moves while all she wants is to touch his cornrows. Meiying’s family friend Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) sees the two lovebirds and interrupts, putting the smackdown on Dre and getting his point across that they are not to be friends.
Dre refuses to tell his mother what’s going on with Cheng as tensions rise, with Cheng bullying Dre at school and in the streets. After a great foot chase through the streets and back alleys, Dre is finally cornered by Cheng and his goons but is rescued with a spectacularly choreographed fight between the bullies and Mr. Han as Han manages to defend himself while the bullies only wind up beating each other up.
Han takes Dre to the local dojo where Cheng and his friends are being taught kung fu under the cruel tutelage of Master Li (Rongguang Yu, Beijing’s resident Pai Mei) to make peace with the kids but winds up getting Dre thrown into a kung fu tournament instead. Now Dre must learn kung fu to win the respect and honor of his fellow pupils even if it means he must learn to pick up his jacket, or take it on and off again, a thousand times (something even his mother has never been able to teach him).
The film runs almost two and a half hours but it never drags. When you realize that it takes the first two hours just to get to the kung fu tournament you may be wowed by the rapid pacing and surprised that the filmmakers found a way to extend the film as long as it is. At first I was put off by the length and thought it would just feel too bloated and drag the whole way to the finish line. Before the movie even started I made a joke about how long it was and said to another critic, “What is it? A Chinese production?” and then we both got to snicker when the credits displayed it was a China Film Group production, anyone who’s ever seen the original cut of a kung fu flick or two knows that they like their movies long.
The only thing that really seems slightly out of place is some of the soundtrack choices throughout the beginning. When you have a montage featuring Jaden Smith sleeping on an airplane and the character is from Detroit, the last thing you think of hearing is John Mayer, but I digress. Things get more authentic as it progresses, even if Lady Gaga pops up in one scene but at least it’s when Dre and Meiying are wooing each other over Dance Dance Revolution and thankfully the teen romance never gets overly sexualized and is kept particularly innocent as it should be.
Originally Columbia Pictures was going to title the film The Kung Fu Kid but I’m sure they realized that the name was the real selling point, along with Jackie Chan of course. Who wouldn’t want to see a version of The Karate Kid with Master Chan?! And some may wonder why a few of the training sequences take place on the Great Wall of China but I say if you have Jackie Chan in your movie, why wouldn’t you? It’s because you can. So while there may be no crane kick to be found and the setup for waxing on and off never materializes, you’ll find yourself just as won over as you were by the original, if not more so this time around as Chan and Smith land all their own punches in a film much more deserving of the title The Karate Kid.