Jaden Smith as Dre Parker
Jackie Chan as Mr. Han
Taraji P. Henson as Sherry Parker
Wenwen Han as Meiying
Rongguang Yu as Master Li
Zhensu Wu as Meiying’s Dad
Zhiheng Wang as Meiying’s Mom
Zhenwei Wang as Cheng
Jared Minns as Dre’s Detroit Friend
Shijia Lü as Liang
Yi Zhao as Zhuang
Bo Zhang as Song
Rocky Shi as Ur Dang
Ji Wang as Mrs. Po
Directed by Harald Zwart
When Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moves to China with his mother (Taraji P. Henson), he finds himself being picked on by bullies, so he convinces the building handyman Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) to train him in kung fu so that he can defend his honor at an upcoming Kung Fu Tournament.
Every once in a while a movie comes along that has such a great emotional resonance and impact it reminds you of the reasons why we love movies. They’re meant to entertain us, to emotionally move us and to help us escape into other worlds and other people’s lives. In the case of the movie that takes its name and much of its plot from a 1984 movie that’s considered a beloved classic by many, it pretty much nails all these things so well that you may be surprised how much you loved the movie without knowing why.
The big change from the original is that it mostly takes place in China, a location director Harald Zwart (“Agent Cody Banks”) takes full advantage of in every respect, using some of the country’s most famous landmarks as a backdrop for establishing a very different looking “Karate Kid.” Oh, right, and then there’s all the kung fu fighting in the movie that may make a few people scratch their heads about the use of the original movie’s title, but more on that later.
For the most part, it utilizes a fairly simple three-act structure similar to the first movie, the first act setting up Dre and his mother’s fish-out-of-water experiences as they arrive in China, him meeting and trying to impress the pretty violinist Mei Ying (played by newcomer Wenwen Han) and becoming the target for a tough bully name Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) who also likes her. The rivalry begins with a bit of violent playground roughhousing but the friction between the two boys soon grows into something more serious and Cheng’s threats turn violent, forcing Dre’s enigmatic handyman Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) to step in and save him. Han is a sullen loner but he has martial arts skills, and he agrees to train Dre, not for revenge but to defend his honor, especially with the bullies’ sensei Master Li being so adamant about them showing no mercy to opponents. The second act is all about Dre’s training, and it probably requires the most suspension of disbelief, since it’s hard to believe that taking one’s jacket on or off can actually build the skills needed to be a kung fu master, not that we want to disagree with Jackie Chan.
This is a wonderful film filled with strong morals and messages, but mostly, it’s effective since it handles so many different things very well, including the feelings of being an outsider when you move to a new place. More importantly, it’s one of the first movies since “My Girl” to capture the innocence and emotion of one’s first love. It’s a feeling that’s hard-to-describe or create, but the honesty of what that’s like allows Zwart to create a moving Romeo and Juliet story of the highest order, as we watch this young black kid from Detroit befriending a Chinese girl impeded by the discipline of her parents and music teacher. At first, Dre just shows off for her and tries to impress her, but soon they become friends and share a special kiss. It’s never taken too far but kept in the innocent realm where boys and girls are first discovering the opposite sex, and it plays a large part in what makes the film so charming and enjoyable.
While Jaden still has a way to go before he’s considered a dramatic actor on the level of his parents, he already displays all the charm and personality that makes it easy for him to carry this movie and make it thoroughly enjoyable. There’s a fantastic chemistry between Smith and Chan, one that’s on par with the original movie and one that could only have come out of true friendship. On top of that, the movie features one of the best dramatic performances of Jackie Chan’s career, as he brings such poignancy and depth to the role of Mr. Han that it will surely surprise and shock those who feel Chan is only able to do one thing well. In fact, we’ve never really had a chance to see Chan do anything like this before, although he’s still sharp with a few well-timed quips to keep things fairly light. Similarly, Taraji P. Henson is instantly credible as Dre’s mother, between her nagging and worrying and acting just like the type of loopy Mom we all remember having when we were Dre’s age. The young Chinese actors aren’t bad–Wenwen Han is quite delightful as Smith’s love interest–though their broken English is somewhat distracting even if having Chinese actors helps the movie’s authenticity.
As far as the misnomer in the film’s title, since most of the martial arts on display isn’t “karate,” there are a couple of jokes to try to brush it off, but it never becomes the deal breaker some may think. Those looking to this as an action movie may be disappointed by the minimal amount of actual kung fu fighting. Other than a couple of fights and Dre’s training, it’s mainly saved for the last twenty minutes when he competes in a similar tournament as the original. From that point, it’s fairly predictable where things will go, but as with everything else in the movie it finds a way to give the fights a clever new twist.
Sure, the movie may be a little long at over 2 hours, and there may have been a few scenes that could have easily been cut–Mei Ying showing off her dance skills quickly comes to mind–but all the pieces do serve a purpose for the overall story and the outcome wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if this stuff hadn’t been established to such a degree earlier.
The Bottom Line:
Ultimately, “The Karate Kid” rises above the fact it’s a remake and delivers the type of classic old school filmmaking we rarely see nowadays, not so much trying to cater to the geeks or the hipsters, but delivering a solidly satisfying and entertaining experience that can appeal to everyone else. Right now, this is the summer’s best movie, and I wouldn’t be even remotely surprised if it’s considered by some as the best of the year.