The original Karate Kid was an audience-pleasing sleeper that built on word of mouth to become, surprisingly, the fifth biggest hit of 1984. The 2010 remake might become an even bigger smash, but it has just a fraction of the smarts and subtlety that made the original a generational classic.
Preteen Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moves from to Detroit to China with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) after she scores a new job. He feels out of place in his new surroundings, a situation that spirals downward when bully Cheng beats him up for talking to a girl. Dre lives under constant threat of attack until one day when, just before yet another beating, the apartment complex’s handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), appears and rescues him. Turns out Han is a martial-arts expert, and he agrees to train Dre for a kung fu tournament where he can face off against Cheng, as well as against all the other members of the evil school where Cheng studies martial arts.
One of the best features about the movie is the setting. With the help of talented cinematographer Roger Pratt (who regularly collaborates with Terry Gilliam), director Harald Zwart makes day-to-day life in China both exotic and commonplace -- a trick very few American films have ever pulled off. The filmmakers don’t treat China like a museum, but a fully functional community where real people live, play, eat, work, and go to school every day. This sense of place helps keep the film from falling apart during a nearly hour-long setup that elongates Dre’s suffering to a point where we almost lose patience with him.
Will Smith became a worldwide superstar for a reason -- very few performers can win over audiences with such seeming effortlessness as the artist formally known as the Fresh Prince. And while his son Jaden gives a fine performance here -- it’s obvious he’s absorbed tons from watching his dad -- he doesn’t yet possess the intangible quality that makes an actor larger than life. He’s got attitude where his dad has charisma. His lack of star power is compounded by the presence of Jackie Chan, a genuine movie star. When Han finally reveals his kung-fu knowledge, dispatching the gang of bullies with such grace and skill that he never actually punches any of them, it’s the highlight of the film -- a mix of action, dance, and physical comedy that hammers home why Chan deserves comparisons to Bruce Lee, Gene Kelly, and Buster Keaton. It’s Chan that captures our heart, instilling banal lines about controlling the life force in order to properly understand kung fu with fresh authority. Best of all, he’s generous -- his young co-star comes off better playing scenes with him than he does with anyone else in the cast.
As good as Chan is, the movie can’t overcome the fact that the emotional stakes in the film seem low because the main character is so young. The puppy love between Dre and the young girl -- a story element the movie spends a great deal of time on -- has far less weight than a relationship between teens that have driver’s licenses. On top of that, while the bad kid’s kung-fu skills would be intimidating to someone his age, it’s nearly comical to any adult; at some point you do ask yourself why the principal, who seems to understand Cheng is a little snot, isn’t willing to step in and stop the little brat.
The movie will work for patient kids, who might enjoy seeing so much of a foreign country, but tykes who are in it for the action have to wait an awful long time to get to the slam-bang finale where a giant video monitor offers up instant replays of all the big kicks, flips, and punches for anyone too young or dumb to understand what’s going on in the ring the first time they see it.
The original Karate Kid still has a following because it works no matter how old you are; that’s part of the reason Hollywood would try to remake it in the first place. And while little ones may love this version, they’re going to outgrow it.
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- Released: 2010
- Rating: PG
- Review: The original Karate Kid was an audience-pleasing sleeper that built on word of mouth to become, surprisingly, the fifth biggest hit of 1984. The 2010 remake might become an even bigger smash, but it has just a fraction of the smarts and subtlety that made… (more)