Movie Review:
The Karate Kid
By Matthew Huntley
June 18, 2010

Noted: Owen Wilson is easily replaced.

When news first broke of a Karate Kid remake, my heart sank. I remember thinking (just as millions of others probably did), how dare they remake this ‘80s classic! The original Karate Kid (1984) is too iconic to ever be re-imagined! Ralph Macchio will always be Daniel Larusso and Pat Morita will always be Mr. Miyagi, plain and simple! No remake could ever live up to the one that started it all!

I stand corrected. The Karate Kid (2010) is a surprisingly well made movie that treats its time-honored story with class, dignity and a warm heart. It succeeds because the filmmakers don’t try to live up to the original as much as start from scratch with their own unique vision. It would be pointless to assume they weren’t aware of the first film’s loyal following, but rather than succumb to the pressure of lofty expectations, they simply interpret the story differently and never look back. It’s a pleasure (and relief) to say the result is exciting, heartfelt and even inspirational.

Filling the title role this time is Jaden Smith, who was last seen in The Pursuit of Happyness with his father, Will (now serving as producer). Young Jaden certainly has the right attitude, innocence and charisma for the part, but at the risk of sounding too harsh, he doesn’t have the acting skills. That’s my biggest criticism of the movie and it’s a problem because I’m aware of how crucial the performances and drama were to the original (many viewers will be). Most of the time, we see through Smith’s performance and can tell he’s reciting lines instead of naturally embodying the character. It’s distracting, yes, but on another note, he’s just so charming, sweet and likable that we’re willing to forgive his sub par acting. If it’s any consolation, kids probably won’t notice, and they’re the film’s target audience.

Smith plays Dre Parker, a troubled 12-year-old who’s just moved from Detroit to Beijing with his mom (Taraji P. Henson). As the classic story goes, Dre tries to make friends with the local kids, including a cute girl named Meiying (Wenwen Han), but he’s bullied by a gang of jealous kung fu punks, headed by the merciless Cheng (Zhenwei Wang).

Let me say the fight scenes in this film are impressive. Credit is due not only to the young actors, but also the stunt people and choreographers who make the fights appear about as brutal and convincing as they can in a PG-rated movie. In fact, one of the reasons we end up rooting for Dre so much is because we really believe he’s getting hurt. This makes us sympathize with him on a deeper level.

Coming to Dre’s rescue is Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a closet kung fu master disguised as a maintenance man. Just like Mr. Miyagi did for Daniel, Mr. Han teaches Dre about focus, inner strength, discipline and moral values. Han’s lessons take place in ancient temples and along the Great Wall, which provide a golden opportunity for the filmmakers to photograph some of China’s beautiful countryside as master and student prepare for the climactic kung fu tournament. (I’m not sure why “karate” is in the title since it’s obvious Mr. Han is teaching Dre kung fu, but we just accept it.)

Anyone remotely familiar with the original Karate Kid will realize the remake follows the same story down to a T (there are few creative changes made by screenwriter Christopher Murphey), and it’d be one thing if fans were able to anticipate the scenes ahead of time and be disappointed, but that’s not the case here. I personally love the original but still found myself engaged and enchanted by this underdog story. During the tournament scenes, I was actually cheering and getting a little choked up at the idea Dre might win and prove himself to his enemies.

Another emotional moment occurs earlier during Mr. Han’s breakdown, when he reveals a tragic secret about his past. Just as it did in the original, this scene gives Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan the chance to really act and listen to each other. They generate the right amount of emotion so the moment pays off tactfully and honestly.

It’d be darn near impossible for The Karate Kid (2010) to have the same impact as its predecessor, but it does impact us. Despite a nearly two and a half hour runtime, it flows rhythmically with action, tension and urgency. Director Harald Zwart has made a solid and worthy family movie that’s entertaining and sophisticated without being patronizing. He’s also done it with minimal references to the original, so it’s fresh, different and lively enough to hold our attention. If this movie is a hit, there will no doubt be a swarm of other remakes coming our way. The Karate Kid gives us hope they can be done well.