I was seven-years-old when the original Karate Kid was released. It was one of those films I loved as a child and still enjoy as an adult. It’s also a film that wasn’t screaming for a remake. Then again, I am no longer the target demographic. Sitting next to a 13-year-old boy at my screening of Harald Zwart’s The Karate Kid I was witness to excitement similar to what I must have had 26 years ago, and after watching the film I wish I could have been as ebullient as that young man was. While it’s obvious the story that worked so long ago still works today (underdog sports stories most oftentimes do work), it’s the little things that make some rise to the top and that’s where this remake misses its mark.
The story hues close to the ’84 release as 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) pack it up and move from Detroit to China. Dre is forced to make do with the fact he doesn’t speak the language and a quick attempt to impress his classmate Mei Ying (Wenwen Han) earns him a severe beat down from a class bully. The kids in this film may only be 12-years-old, but they certainly take, and dole out, much harder beatings than anything 16-year-old Daniel Larusso ever experienced. While Daniel was left to bleed on a sandy beach in his first altercation, Dre is slammed on the playground cement and that’s just for starters.
In an attempt to defend himself, Dre takes an interest in kung fu, but when he learns Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), his playground nemesis, trains at the most prestigious (yet dirty) facility in town he turns to his apartment building’s maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), for help. However, this help and a temporary peace with the bullies comes at a cost. Dre will meet them again in a local kung fu tournament where he must face his fears if he ever wants to walk around unafraid as well as earn the respect of Mei Ying’s family.
Of course, for those of you familiar with the original you are nodding your head at all of this. You’ve seen and heard it before as this remake amps up the “fish out of water” syndrome replacing a move to California with a move to China. The rest is pretty much the same, even though “wax on, wax off” has been replaced by the even sillier “jacket off” (keep the innuendo jokes to yourself) and the beatings are more severe. Nevertheless, we’re still telling the exact same story.
Smith as Dre works well enough. He’s got charisma as a youngster, but it will be interesting to see how his career moves on from here as I could see a lot of his father (actor Will Smith) coming through in his performance. Who’s to say if this is a good or bad thing? Chan doesn’t surprise or underwhelm as much as he serves his purpose. The familiarity I have with the clownish behavior of Chan as well as this specific material is probably the main reason much of Chan’s performance felt a little flat. Equally, the faithfulness with which this film was made based on the original begs for a comparison, and to that Chan is no Pat Morita so don’t expect him to follow in Morita’s Oscar-nominated shoes.
Perhaps the film’s biggest downfall is the lack of attention paid to the supporting cast. Han as Mei Ying is a paint-by-numbers love interest, and even though I know kids are starting their relationships at younger and younger ages nowadays, trying it with 12-year-old children in a kids flick makes it hard to swallow. Rongguang Yu can’t touch Martin Kove as the original’s evil karate instructor John Kreese, but this is hardly Yu’s fault as the script made him into nothing more than a cardboard standee and little else. Even Taraji P. Henson as Dre’s mother isn’t given nearly the material Randee Heller had to work with — an obsessive concern for an ill-placed jacket does not make a character.
The beats in The Karate Kid seem to be off, shoehorning in awe inspiring glimpses of China’s landscape but to what effect? Dre and Mr. Chan visit the Forbidden City and train on the Great Wall of China (just because it’s there I guess), but this doesn’t add to the story anymore than Rob Cohen’s unnecessary exploration of China did in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
The underdog story is really all that sticks out here, but at two hours and 20 minutes it’s too long and lacks the overwhelming charm of the original. The young boy I was sitting next to rushed out of the theater saying, “I can’t wait to tell everyone at school,” and I am sure his classmates will enjoy it as much as he did, but to me it was merely passable.