The Karate Kid

Chan and Smith's chemistry can take things only so far.

It would be hard to imagine many other films that typify the style and tone of popular 1980s cinema than John G. Avildsen’s 1984 underdog pic The Karate Kid. Why any filmmaker would dare remake a film so deeply steeped in nostalgia and so warmly revered as a part of the cultural zeitgeist – from its Joe Esposito song to Pat Morita’s Academy Award-nominated performance – is anyone’s guess. A good place to start looking is at the parents of this remake’s star – Will and Jada Pinkett Smith – who are rightly confident that their son, Jaden, is charismatic and charming, yet arrogant to think that this pointless project is the right star vehicle for him.

After being rather insensitively moved from Detroit to Beijing to start a new life, young Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is struggling to keep it together. Thrust into a new school by his mother (Taraji P. Henson), he soon enough makes friends with a young Chinese girl, Mei Ying (Wen Wen Han), yet a jealous fellow student, Cheng, bullies Dre in an attempt to get rid of him. This ultimately causes the despondent janitor of Dre’s home, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), to intervene, proving himself a kung-fu master and a sure hero to Dre. Such kickstarts an awkward friendship between the two, as Dre convinces Mr. Han to teach him kung fu in order that he can ultimately face Cheng in an upcoming kung fu tournament.

It is fair to say that The Karate Kid isn’t a grossly offensive film, and on its own dubious merits, it isn’t a bad film, but living up to the original’s legacy with a bloated 141-minute runtime and an often unintentionally amusing treatment proves too much for even the spirited turns of Smith and Chan. Not to mention, the film is about Kung Fu, not Karate…

What absolutely works about this otherwise auxiliary remake is the two leads; Jaden Smith has a future following in his father’s footsteps, but here he is simply too young to lend the role the necessary gravitas, and the result is something cheesier and less honest than the original, by no fault of the young thesp himself. Chan, however, challenges those who assumed his career is dead after countless duds, from The Tuxedo to The Spy Next Door, in which the frequent use of stunt doubles was achingly abundant. Here, in one particular scene in which he cleverly disarms a group of bullies, it is delightfully clear that Chan is pulling off all of the moves for real. Though English isn’t his forte, it is a far more believable trait here in a run-down, not to mention Chinese man living in China than in the myriad of cop types that have dominated his career. This helps make his performances appear surprisingly believable and nuanced.

Renaming Chan’s character to Mr. Han suggests an attempt to distance Chan’s Kung Fu master from Pat Morita’s legendary Mr. Miyagi, a smart move given the mighty stature and unerring adoration the character has received. Though a fair few notches lower on the emotional scale, Chan and Smith’s natural parlance is well supplanted onto a personal story in which both encounter tragedies and need to redeem themselves. It’s just a shame the narrative is too slender and overstuffed in the wrong areas, making this filler-packed slog more arduous than inspirational. There’s little reason why this remake is fifteen minutes longer than the original, which was, at 126 minutes, rather close itself to outstaying its welcome.

The film’s key structural conceit is rather difficult to digest; Dre is only 12 years old – a fair few years younger than Daniel from the original – and so several elements, namely a love story, and the threat of a tough, unbeatable bully, come off as clunky, goofy and overly self-serious. Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), the bully, does his best to create a menacing presence, but as someone merely aspiring to reach five feet tall, it is anything but imposing. The love story, meanwhile, serves well to highlight the differences between Chinese and American cultures, but the obvious age (and height) gap between the two makes things scarcely believable, quite laughable, and frankly a little strange. Probably the most implausible element, though, is why Dre’s mother would uproot her well-adjusted son so drastically because of personal woes; a new start means moving cities, not taking your son out of his comfort zone to another continent. If anything, she’s the most loathsome character of all.

No, the “get him a body bag” line isn’t in there, but then, a genuine – and better than expected – attempt has been made to recall a pop-culture classic. The cast manages well but the excruciatingly long runtime and failure to carve out its own cultural niche makes this a redundant and fairly crass exercise in celebrity vanity. Jaden Smith, however, will go far.


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