- Rated PG
- Buy the BD
All photos © Sony Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
hen it was announced that Will Smith was producing a remake of the 1984 film, “The Karate Kid,” as a star vehicle for son Jaden, you could practically hear the collective moans and groans coming from the nostalgia police. The original isn’t as great as some people remember it, but it’s a real crowd-pleaser that stands as one of the definitive underdog sports dramas in cinematic history. Still, the movie isn’t so untouchable that it’s not worth remaking, and though director Harold Zwart’s update probably won’t endure the same kind of legacy, it’s a mostly beat-for-beat remake that actually lives up to its predecessor.
For Daniel LaRusso, moving cross-country from New Jersey to California was a pretty big deal, so you can imagine the reaction from Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) when his mother (Taraji P. Henson) informs him that they're leaving their hometown of Detroit to follow a job opportunity in Beijing, China. He takes it surprisingly well considering he doesn’t speak the language, but when he’s beaten up by a group of bullies (led by Zhenwei Wang) after flirting with a cute violin prodigy named Meiying (Wenwen Han) in the park, Dre’s forced to spend the rest of his school days in hiding. But he can’t avoid them forever, and after his apartment complex’s soft-spoken handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), saves him from yet another beating, Dre begs Han to teach him kung fu in time to participate in the upcoming martial arts tournament so he can stand up to the bullies.
Okay, so it’s not actually karate that he’s learning, but you can’t exactly change the name of the movie, because “The Kung Fu Kid” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Although the 2010 version follows the same general plot, some things have been changed so that it’s not a complete scene-for-scene remake. For instance, there’s no “wax on, wax off” training exercise, but rather a different gimmick that, for all intents and purposes, works the same way in teaching Dre the basics of kung-fu and respect. The addition of a language barrier also makes Dre an even bigger outcast than Daniel-san, and it’s hard not to see shades of “The Karate Kid: Part II” in his sweet romance with Meiying.
Jaden Smith may seem a bit young for the role, but he handles the material well, and actually has a much better screen presence than Ralph Macchio ever did, who was 14 years his senior when he first assumed the crane position. The jury’s still out on Smith, but his work here suggests that he has the charisma necessary to be a star. Taraji P. Henson, meanwhile, does her best in what's a pretty thankless role, and Zhenwei Wang, although no William Zabka (but honestly, who is?), plays all the right notes as the lead bully. The plum part of “The Karate Kid” remains the mentor, however, and Jackie Chan delivers his best performance to date. Han’s big emotional moment may not be strong enough to earn him an Oscar nomination like it did for Pat Morita, but he’s still the highlight of the movie thanks to his obvious knack for comedy and martial arts.
In fact, one of the things that has been much improved upon are the fight scenes, like the aforementioned sequence where Han saves Dre from the bullies, which features some great choreography that really plays to Chan’s strengths. The tournament is also ripe with plenty of cheer-worthy moments, and even though it’s missing Joe Esposito’s blood-pumping power ballad, “You’re the Best,” it at least shows that, unlike Macchio’s character in the original film, Dre actually has the skill to win. The only thing that really gets in the way of this remake besting the 1984 version is its runtime, but even at a wearisome 140 minutes, “The Karate Kid” maintains the same winning formula that made the original such a classic. And sometimes, even classics need a little polish.
Two-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
The two-disc release of “The Karate Kid” is all about the behind-the-scenes action. There’s a 20-minute making-of featurette, a series of production diaries covering things like Jaden Smith’s martial arts training and filming in the Forbidden City, and mini-featurettes on shooting in some of China’s historic locations. Also included is an alternate ending where Jackie Chan fights the evil martial arts master, a few basic Chinese lessons, a Justin Beiber music video, and a DVD and digital copy of the film.