The Karate Kid (2010, Harald Zwart)

902539 - KARATE KID

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

American Dre Parker is the target of bullies when he moves to Beijing, so the local handyman comes to his aid…

Cast and story:
* This remake of The Karate Kid, filmed 26 years after the original, follows the same basic storyline. But there are also some significant changes.
* Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is an American boy who’s forced to move to China when his mother, Shelley (Taraji P Henson), gets a new job. Unlike the original movie’s 16-year-old Daniel, Dre is just 12.
* They leave a drab, saturated, rainy Detroit and fly to the vibrant, bright, busy Beijing. It soon becomes clear that one of the aims of this American/Chinese co-production is to show off China in a positive light. Both the city and the surrounding countryside look gorgeous, while the film ignores any difficult political stuff.
* Having moved into an apartment building, Dre soon meets handyman Han (Jackie Chan). He’s a bit of a loner and doesn’t mix with the other workmen. (Han solo, you might say.) He also tinkers with a damaged car that’s parked inside his home.
* Dre then plays basketball with some new friends (not football, as in the 1984 film). He flirts with a girl called Meiying (Wenwen Han) but irritates a local bully called Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Cheng and his cronies are soon picking on Dre, who tries to fight back but ends up getting hurt.
* So, wanting a way of defending himself, Dre seeks out a local kung-fu school. (Yup, that’s right. Because we’re in China, the story’s martial art is kung-fu not karate. They kept the movie title from 1984 just for marketing reasons.) But wouldn’t you know it? The school he investigates is where Cheng and co are being taught how to be thugs by a psycho sensei.
* This telling of the story has no fancy-dress party, but Dre – like Daniel before him – still can’t resist tipping water over Cheng and legging it. Cheng gives chase through the streets and eventually corners him. Cheng and his gang then start to beat Dre up, but Han appears and stops them with ease… Now, here is a significant area where this movie has missed the point of the original. In the 1984 film, it’s a huge moment when the elderly, short, meek Mr Miyagi quashes a rough, tough gang of aggressive teenagers. He shouldn’t be able to do that! Here, however, the teenagers have been aged down to 12. And the Mr Miyagi figure is played by Jackie fucking Chan. *Of course* he can best a gang of brats. He’d still win if there were a hundred of them! The surprise, the wow factor, is totally lost by these casting choices.
* Han visits the king-fu school and – like Mr Miyagi in 1984 – strikes a deal with the bullies’ teacher, Li (Yu Rongguang). Cheng will leave Dre alone until after an upcoming tournament. The sequence is capped by a good gag: because the deal is struck in Chinese, it’s only on the walk home that Dre finds out he has to fight in a competition. “Huh?” he asks, not unreasonably.
* We then get the equivalent of the wax-on/wax-off stuff from the original – but with a nice twist. Dre has a habit of dropping his coat on the floor, and Han had earlier seen his mother getting irate about it. So, to begin with, Dre’s training regime consists *only* of him hanging his jacket up, putting it back on, taking it off, hanging it up again… and so on, ad infinitum. Of course, Dre gets frustrated with doing this a thousand times, but he’s unconsciously learning the basic kung-fu moves.
* Meanwhile, Dre is also still trying to chat up Meiying. They see each other at a shadow-puppet show and share a kiss. But her fussy parents object to her dating an American boy when she should be practising the violin. (Later, though, they’re impressed when Dre learns how to suck up to them in Chinese.)
* Jackie Chan then gets the same drama scene that Pat Morita had in the original: Dre finds Han drunk and mourning his dead family. Mr Miyagi’s wife and son died 40 years earlier in childbirth; Han’s were killed in a car crash – in the car he’s now obsessively tinkering with. It’s a very sweet moment when Dre pulls his friend out of his depression.
* After a training montage, we’re into the Open Kung-fu Tournament. The story then follows much the same beats as in 1984.

Review: This remake of The Karate Kid is enjoyable enough, with a mixture of pros and cons. It’s directed with an indie sensibility, so as well as lots of handheld camerawork we get some lovely and kooky images. When the drama comes it’s often effective – especially the moment when Dre realises Han’s been teaching him to fight – while the fights themselves are great; helped by some violent sound effects, you feel every punch and kick. But the movie is too long (135 minutes) and lowering the characters’ ages works against the story. Writing Dre and the other kids as 12-year-olds makes the bullies seem silly rather than menacing; gives Han an unfair advantage; and pushes Dre’s ‘romance’ with Meiying into uncomfortable territory. Presumably the switch was made so that Jaden Smith – the son of executive producer Will Smith – could be cast.

Six cobras out of 10