This had all the makings of a train wreck.
First of all, the original “The Karate Kid” is practically a classic – “Rocky” with a crane kick – it was not screaming for a remake. There just wasn’t a lot of room for improvement. Secondly, the new film stars Will Smith’s kid as a 12 year old learning kung fu in China. I watched the trailer unsure that I would believe in this story enough to care by the time the film reaches it’s climax. Lastly, Jackie Chan steps into the mentor role. His Mr. Han is basically Mr. Miyagi with a little more sadness. Chan, in the right role, is a presence on screen but in the wrong role or a lesser film, can be painful to watch.
This was not a train wreck, though. The film works.
From the opening sequence of Smith’s Dre and his mother leaving Detroit for Beijing, the audience is thrust into a tale that is familiar and yet new enough to be engaging and entertaining. The original was a fish out of water story with Daniel moving from New Jersey to California. The new film puts the hero in very foreign territory with Dre not knowing the language and being half a world away from home. It is a true culture shock and it makes his fear all the more believable. The new movie is about conquering fear and that choice, partnered with using younger characters, is what helps give the story some new life.
Make no mistake though, “The Karate Kid” follows all the same beats as the original. Dre, like Daniel, is bullied by kids from a martial arts school that preaches “no mercy.” When his mentor approaches the teacher from that school to get his students to leave Dre alone, he gets his student into a tournament where he will have to face his tormentors. Mr. Han, like Mr. Miyagi, has a tragic past and finds peace in a sort of father-son relationship with his student. He uses a strange system to teach Dre martial arts and soon, the student is ready to compete with his expertly trained bullies.
Smith, like his father, is a charming actor. He is good with a quip and fun to watch in action sequences. He has obviously been taught well and should have a long career ahead of him. Chan does some of his best work as Mr. Han, issuing sage advice about the nature of kung fu and also kicking butt in a fight scene early in the film. The rest of the actors are unknowns and it goes a long way into grounding the film and giving it heart. Dre’s schoolboy crush is a cute violinist and their budding relationship is sweet. His tormentor, Cheng, is a threatening bad boy and does a great job of being menacing and dangerous. I also give a lot of credit to Taraji Henson as Dre’s mother. She was great in “Benjamin Button” and does a fine job here as well.
What made both the original and the remake work best was the tournament scene. Everything leads up to the finale where Daniel/Dre show off their new skills, come back from a devastating injury and win the championship. (If you seriously think that is a spoiler, you need to turn on your tv some time). Both films do a good job of getting the audience behind the hero and rooting for his victory.
The one problem I had with the remake though has to do with the brutality of an early fight scene and the tournament finals. The characters in the film are supposed to be around 12 years old and watching the violence is a little disturbing. I don’t remember being shocked at the original, perhaps it left more to the imagination, but I had to look away near the end of the remake (remember what the bad teacher asks one of his students to do in the fight?). That also kind of ruined the very end for me, too. After Dre wins, the bad guys give him their respect. He nods in appreciation but I would have turned my back on them and walked away. “Two minutes ago you tried to break my leg, but now we’re cool? I don’t think so.”
“The Karate Kid” is long, (over two hours) but it’s fun for the whole family.