A Chinese handy man agrees to teach an American boy who's become the target of bullies how to defend (and discover) himself through martial arts.
What's the only thing more unexpected than an enjoyable 80's remake? Unlike The A-Team, my knowledge of The Karate Kid is extensive and
seen through the warm fuzzy filter of a happy childhood memory. Just like The A-team, I went into The Karate Kid open to anything, but expecting very little- and came out quite surprised. So, what's the only thing more unexpected than an enjoyable 80's remake? Two in a row. But this one does much more to earn my acclaim than manage not to be bad, it seems it may very well have managed to bottle the lighting.
They would have you believe this is a whole new movie. 'The familiar is gone! This isn't just a remake, it's a reinvention!' they say. But that, my friends, is a filthy lie. Gone are Daniel and Mr. Miyagi, it's true. And a move fr
om New Jersey to California has become a one from Detroit to China. Under these very obvious changes, however, is a remake that spiritually follows the original with a nigh unheard of faithfulness. I would guess that Director Harald Zwart is a fan of the 1984 motion picture, he certainly handles the material like one.
While small the cast is strong, going out of their way to carry scenes that- in true Karate Kid fashion- are so completely full of sentiment that you wonder how they fit anything else in the frame. Of all the leads, Jackie Chan seems to be having the most fun. He plays the curmudgeon Mr. Haan so well that had I never seen him smile before, I'd probably believe that he never had. He manages to arrive at the end of the film with the audiences love deservedly heaped upon him. Conversely, Taraji Henderson is both spot-on and all but wasted, as
she is far to often. She reaps her revenge when she snaps up one of the biggest laughs of the movie.
As Dre (Daniel) Parker, Jaden Smith proves many things, one of them unfortunately being that he lacks his father's flare for comedy. Fed line after line of genuinely funny material (perhaps even at Will Smith's behest; He and mother Jada Pinkett Smith produced), Jaden struggles to deliver- shining instead in moments of high drama. That he can stand toe to toe with Henderson and hold up his end of the scene is enough to prove that. Even with out the laughs Jaden Smith proves himself here, showing his first and very impressive flashes of leading man material.
I will admit that Kung Fu is far more beautiful than Karate in my eyes, and this film only reinforces my belief. Add that to rather impressive fight choreography and you have one place I would easily choose the new over the old. But unlike Avildsen's original outing, Zwart wastes most of his beautiful martial arts on camera work that makes it all but moot. I often found myself wishing I could see what was going on but the shots given were tight and stifling, leaving me to imagine that something cool must have happened rather than actually letting me see it for myself. This alone comes up far short of what it would need to hurt the over all experience, but still- it's a lesson directors need to learn.
Something Zwart does very well, however, is balance the obvious cultural inferences of location and cast. He manages to impress upon the audience a sense of China's majesty and culture, without making the movie feel like a public service announcement, and at the same time, managing to side step pot holes full of stereo-types. In terms of race, Zwart gets the viewer to at once stare at it, and pay it no mind; no easy feat. The truth is that boiled down this is a story where a gang of Chinese kids repeatedly attacks the only black kid in the movie, just as the original pitted our dark haired, olive skinned "hero" against an Aryan main "villain". The story could easily be lost here in the wrong hands. But amid a myriad of moments reminding you that these are young men who are not devoid of conscience (just as in the original:"I'm sorry David, I'm sorry!"), Zwart keeps the focus where it belongs, (re)weaving instead a tale about the affect teachers have on their pupils, for better or for worse.
So, does the new Karate Kid work? Well, I saw it more than a week after i
t was released, early on a Sunday afternoon- and the house was still near full. In the audience were Karate kid veterans and new comers alike, all of which burst into cheers and applause at the end of that fated martial arts tournament. I will freely admit that this was easily the most uplifting movie I've seen in theaters in a long, long time- but I wouldn't pin it all on Zwart and company. I think that the success of The Karate Kid is not as much about the fine movie Zwart has crafted as it is a reflection of the universally accessible story it's built around. The same thing that made the original a classic for my generation, will very likely earn it the same treatment for this one.
The Reel Deal Recommends:
Rumble in the Bronx: A Jackie Chan must see.
Smokin' Aces: Far too little of Henderson in a great action meal.
The Pursuit of Happyness: A great victory story starring Smith Sr. and Jr.
I just thought this picture was hilarious.