The Karate Kid Review
Harald Zwart’s remake of perennial eighties’ favourite The Karate Kid is something of a misnomer. Yes, it has a kid being trained in martial arts by an old master in order to win respect and prove himself. But at no point is there any karate on display. ‘The Kung Fu Kid’ is the film’s more accurate title in other overseas territories, and in a sane world it would have been called that here too.
In most other respects however, the new Karate Kid is a pretty faithful updating of the original, which itself was a youth-orientated re-working of the Rocky story. Dre Parker (Jaden ‘Son of Will’ Smith) and his mother have moved to China after her job is relocated. Unable to speak the language and resentful of being made to leave family and friends, Dre is soon picked on by a gang of school bullies after trying to make friends with a local girl. He learns the hard way that the bullies are also students of kung fu, and their teacher is strictly of the ‘no mercy’ ilk. Dre turns to his apartment block handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), to help learn kung fu and regain his honour.
Though the story is much the same, a few things are tweaked here and there (beyond the aforementioned karate/kung fu confusion). Dre is a few years younger than his counterpart in the original, which, aside from helping the title make more sense, also makes his plight more sympathetic. The relocation to China further re-enforces a sense of isolation and confusion. The role of the girlfriend has also been beefed up a good deal, so that she now has her own challenge to overcome (to pass a music exam). Otherwise the plot is the same as before, to the point that you can predict which scene will come next with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
As this is a Chinese co-production, the audience is also treated to a scenic tour of the country’s key attractions, including a nonsensical trip to the Great Wall - mysteriously bereft of any tourists. The film is clearly aimed at dis-spelling any Western myths about how backwards China might be, and sometimes this propaganda is as subtle as one of the many punches inflicted throughout. The use of exoctic locations is a device reminiscent of the early Bond films, when destinations like Jamaica or even the French Riviera added glamour to a film because they were still beyond the reach of the ordinary man. As lovely as it is to see the many wonders of China, the film suffers for having these not-so-gentle reminders crowbarred in.
Indeed, though some of the changes work fine, they have led to a bloated running time of well over two hours. The first half in particular drags quite often; it’s not until Dre and Mr. Han have started the training regime that the pace picks up again. Despite its family market credentials, it’s a little surprising how violent the film is. Significantly more bruising than the original, smaller children may not enjoy the intimidation of Dre early on. Once Mr. Han has secured a ceasefire until the tournament, the only subsequent fights occur in the ring. When the tournament does arrive, the film comes to life with an edge-of-the-seat climax every bit as effective as the 1984 original.
The two leads turn in good performances; Smith certainly has a natural screen presence, even if his relative inexperience occasionally shows itself. Jackie Chan is the heart of the film though, as Pat Morita was before him. In a very subdued turn, Chan quietly convinces as a man with a delicate emotional history which comes to light in a rather touching scene. And he gets one or two scenes where he shows everyone exactly how it should be done.
A few references to the original are slyly dropped in, including an amusing nod to the classic chopstick fly-catching scene. There is no room for “wax on, wax off” though; a shame, as those scenes also added a nice vein of humour to the Kid’s tutoring. The new Karate Kid stands up as decent enough family entertainment, but with a plot that is beat-for-beat identical to the original, it does feel like a spruced up clone with a China desktop theme grafted on.