STUDIO: Sony Pictures
140 minutes

- Chinese Lessons – Learn Chinese!
- Music Video: Justin Bieber Feat. Jaden Smith Never Say Never
- Just for Kicks: The Making of The Karate Kid

The Pitch

Jacket on, jacket off.

The Humans

Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Rongguang Yu, Zhenwei Whang.                        

The Nutshell

In this remake of the 1984 classic, Jaden Smith is Dre Parker, a Detroit Kid transplanted with his single mother (Henson) to China.  The culture shock is made all the more difficult by Dre’s frequent altercations with a group of school bullies, headed by Cheng (Whang), a junior martial arts expert who doesn’t train to be merciful.  Those skirmishes were initially over Dre’s budding friendship with Meiying, a pretty young violin student, and usually ended up with Dre in a heap on the ground.  It’s during one of those beatings where Dre is rescued by Mr. Han (Chan), his building’s maintenance man, who is an expert in kung fu.  Dre pleads with Han to teach him how to defend himself; and after a planned meeting with Cheng’s sensei to try to make peace goes awry, Han agrees to train him for a tournament.  Their goal is, win or lose, the hope that Dre can earn the respect of the bullies.  As Dre trains and learns the tenets of real kung fu, he and Han, who was a loner never able to move past a personal tragedy, form a deep friendship.

The Lowdown

For the most part, The Karate Kid is a good example of how to smartly tackle a remake of a beloved classic.  Were we to put this in automotive terms (why, I have no idea, but go with me on this), the producers broke it down to the chassis and then rebuilt it with a whole new body style and a bigger engine.  The heart and message of the original is maintained, along with the key concepts and benchmarks.  The Karate Kid benefits from some stunning photography of China, impressive fight scenes that trump any of those seen in the original, and a surprisingly affecting turn by Jackie Chan.  Although star Jaden Smith is being handed his career on a platinum, diamond-encrusted platter by his very famous parents, it’s easy to see that he did put in the work and he isn’t completely unequal to the demands of the role.  Were the film about 20 minutes shorter, it could have been a classic in its own right.  As it is, it’s an entertaining, occasionally moving shout out to the original with enough new material to establish its own identity.

The U.S. owes China a shitload of money.  Cheng took his cut out of Dre’s ass.

This is only Smith’s third major theatrical film (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Day The Earth Stood Still).  I found myself admittedly not being a fan of his turn as Jacob Benson with Keanu (let’s just say Gort could have snacked on the whiny kid and it wouldn’t have been a tragedy).  Here, though, he’s progressed quite a bit as he has to hold the majority of the film on his rather slim shoulders.  His preparation for and execution of the physical demands of the role are admirable.  The couple of times he ends up flat on his back on concrete thanks to Cheng, you can really feel it.  He plays Dre pretty straightforward, keeping a character that could have been heavy on the street / hip hop influences generally reined in.  More importantly, he still plays Dre for what he is: a kid, and one who’s completely out of his element.  Smith doesn’t try to play him up as a stereotypical inner city kid who’s desperate to grow up too fast because his environment demands it.  Most of what you might expect a young urban kid to be, hard, a baller, full of swagger, Dre isn’t, and that’s refreshing.

Jaden learned the hard way that not everyone appreciated Wild Wild West as much as he did…

The real revelation in
The Karate Kid, however, is Jackie Chan.  He manages to do Pat Morita proud without doing a ham-laden Chinese Miyagi riff.  And he flat out gives more genuine emotion than I’ve ever seen him do.  In this film, Jackie Chan is anything but Jackie Chan, the one we’re used to seeing, anyway.  That is a very welcome change and one that the film demanded if it was going to succeed.  His Han is a broken-down loner; simply existing in the wake of a personal tragedy that’s revealed later in the film.  Chan plays him very internally, until a key and moving revelation scene of his tragedy.  He also occasionally bestows Han with mere glimpses of the comedic Chan that is his signature, aside from front kicking goons into oblivion or jumping off skyscrapers onto F-22s or something similar.

Crack?!  That’s your ancient Chinese healer?”

I think Jackie Chan needed this film as much as it needed him.  Because after umpteen Rush Hours, The Medallion, The Tuxedo and others such misfires, the Jackie Chan American film market looked like it was ready to tap out.  Chan successfully adapted his onscreen persona in the 1970s to transcend the Bruceploitation dreck that surrounded him, and it looks as if he’s managed to do so again.  Other performances fall in line with the two stars.  Henson lends a credible affability to Dre’s mother, in a role that’s considerably expanded from Randee Heller’s Mrs. Larusso.  Newcomer Wenwen Han is cute a sa button as Dre’s object of affection, Meiying; and fellow newcomer, Zhenwei Wang, is a suitable foil for Dre and impressive martial artist in his own right.  His Cheng plays for keeps and the beatdowns that he bestows upon Dre are cringe-inducing. 

Click for a surprise.

Director Harald Zwart directs the movie with aplomb; and he manages to breathe new life into some well-worn material that was sufficiently plowed by the original itself.  He successfully keeps the spirit of the original film while giving a fresh and entertaining spin to this new one, allowing it to find its own voice.  He features the key moments well, including one involving a monk and cobra doing a dance in a mountaintop monastery that captures the heart of traditional Chinese philosophies.  He smartly captures awe-inspiring vistas of China, including the monastery and the Great Wall, which features a somewhat cheesy, but nonetheless cool-looking training session with Dre and Han.  Zwart also directs the fights well, sans the maddening blipvert editing treatment that’s oh-so popular these days.  It’s probably impossible to escape the training montages so prevalent in films of this sort, but they never feel cliched.  Dre’s fights, both in the streets and the tournament are much more high-energy than those in the original, without resorting to wire-fu shenanigans.

“…and make sure you watch out for his Animality.”
“Wait, his what…?”

The only knock, again, is the pacing of the first third of the film. 
The Karate Kid takes a bit too long to really get going and it hammers home probably one time too many the fact that if Dre doesn’t get some help against the bullies, he could end up like Williams or Bushido Brown.  Regrettably, Rongguang Yu’s Master Li had zero MartinKoveness; and there was also a confrontation between him and Han at which was only hinted.  I wouldn’t have minded seeing that, perfunctory as it would have been.  Perhaps Han will have Li punching out car windows in the sequel, though.  Overall, The Karate Kid is a surprisingly well-made re-imagining of the classic.

Style: Drunken Master.  Emphasis: Captain Morgan…

The Package

The look and sound of the film are both good, with the former transferring very nicely in 2.40:1.  Special features are a bit sparse, with the main extra being a pretty good 20-minute making-of titled Just for Kicks.  There’s a music video with Smith and Justin Bieber for Bieber’s Never Say Never theme song.  And there’s a series of learning Chinese lessons.

“Forget sweeping the leg, I have a Triad sniper in the rafters…”

7.7 out of 10