Review: Sony's The Karate Kid Shows Remakes How It's Done
by Jeremy Kirk
June 11, 2010
There's no crane kick. No one is told to sweep the leg. Joe Esposito doesn't tell anyone they're "the Best." In fact, there's very little tugging at the heartstrings of nostalgia in The Karate Kid remake at all. What there are, though, are solidly crafted characters and riveting moments of genuine drama all put together to aid a story we have already seen. It doesn't matter that we've seen it before, even less that we saw it three times in sequels. But this Karate Kid, unlike those sequels and unlike most Hollywood remakes, isn't interested in cookie cutter storytelling as a means to brand loyalty. This Karate Kid actually has something honest to say, and the characters, actors, and direction all come together for a rousing experience.
As I said, the basic premise is there. A young boy moves to a new location with his mother. The young boy gets pestered at school by kids who are trained in martial arts. The young boy is taught the arts by a local handyman who is also a master of the craft. The young boy enters a tournament to prove himself to everyone around him. Only, this time, the young boy isn't a teen aged Ralph Macchio but 12-year-old Jaden Smith. The boy and his mother here, instead of moving to Reseda, California, are relocated to China, which establishes a much more realistic and jarring sense of the fish out of water. The handyman is now Jackie Chan, and, if you've ever seen any of his work, you'd want him teaching you kung fu, as well.
Directed by Harald Zwart, who is known for just about anything but his subtlety, The Karate Kid builds a realistic and heartwarming relationship between the boy, Dre, and the handyman, Han. Without a father, the original film's Daniel Larusso had only Mr. Miyagi to look to as a father figure. The age change in this new film gives this sense even moreso, and the quieter moments between Dre and Han can get quite emotional.
In fact, this becomes the structure of this new Karate Kid, taking something from the previous film and changing it up to make it its own. Instead of wax on/wax off, Han has Dre perform the task of taking off his jacket and putting it on a hanger. The changing of locale to China is a significant choice, and Zwart steeps the film in the culture of its setting. There is a similar loss in Han's background to that of Mr. Miyagi, but this, too, is switched up a bit. The moment where this is revealed is intensely written and delicately directed.
This scene, among others throughout the film, allows Chan to be at his very best. Known more for his comedic roles, this more dramatic side to the actor hasn't been introduced to American audiences with much regularity. Here's hoping the flawless performance he gives in The Karate Kid changes that. Pat Morita received a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 1985 for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi, and it would seem quite a coup for Chan to receive similar honors for this remake. It could happen, and I don't think anyone would complain.
No on ever expects much from child actors, and Smith surprises with his own emotional moments. Nothing he brings to the table is particularly exceptional, but he does his job fine especially for a 12-year-old who, it would appear, has a lot to live up to with his familial background.
But much of this success also comes from Zwart who directs The Karate Kid with an even pace. At over two hours, the film still seems to rocket forward, never feeling bloated or like it is lounging around. Really, the running time issue should have been handled at the script stage. Every scene within the film moves the story on to something else, and even the youngest of audience members shouldn't become bored or fidgety.
In fact, it isn't until the film's third act and the climactic tournament that the running time is even noticed. It is at this point where the film falters the most. The tournament is just a formality, a McGuffin, if you will, to get Dre and Han connected. When it arrives, it doesn't even feel necessary, something that is made all the more evident with Zwart's direction. The martial arts moments previously seen in the film are slick, fast, and rather intense, but you know full well what is happening at all times. During the tournament, though, he falls into the trap of shooting with close-ups and jerking the camera around wildly. There really are moments in that final scene where it is difficult to tell what's going on.
Another issue, minor though it is, is in the naming. Sure, it is called The Karate Kid because it's a remake, but there is nothing Karate about this story. The term Karate is only mentioned once, and it is used as a joke between Dre and his mother. The brand management involved in calling it The Karate Kid instead of The Kung Fu Kid is more a problem with the marketing than it is with the film itself, but it's still an issue.
In the end, though, the wax on and off pays its dues, and The Karate Kid becomes a polished and elevated example of the right way to do a remake. Take the previous film's basic premise and make it your own. That is precisely what Zwart and crew do here. The Karate Kid is superb, deeply engaging and wholly entertaining. It is most importantly its own movie, and it effortlessly sidesteps out of any shadow the original film may have cast.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10