The Karate Kid: It’s the Best… Around!

I wasn’t looking forward to this. At all. I thought the original was great and didn’t need a remake. I thought Jackie Chan hadn’t been in a good movie in forever. I thought Jaden Smith was wooden and forced in The Day The Earth Stood Still, and was concerned about his ability to hold the screen. I thought director Harald Zwart, who had previously done One Night at McCool’s and The Pink Panther 2, was incapable of making a good film. I thought the fact that Chan does kung fu yet they were keeping the original title was shameful. I thought the two and a half hour run time was going to make me squirm in my seat. There is no greater joy than being proven wrong when you expect a movie to be bad. I thought it was delightful– earnest, engaging, and old-fashioned. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, and the performances across the board are terrific. It’s not just a knock-off, cranked-out remake: it has heart. The Karate Kid kicks ass.

Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is an unhappy 12-year-old. His mom (Taraji P. Henson) got transferred to China by her job, displacing him from his friends in Detroit to a place where he doesn’t speak the language. He’s dealing with meeting new people and going to a new school where he’s an outsider. Worse, the one girl he likes (Wenwen Han) is being watched by a bully named Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who routinely beats the crap out of Dre if he tries to interact with her. While getting pummeled by six bullies, the maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) defends him from them without throwing a single punch. When Han takes Dre to go visit Cheng’s kung fu master, Li (Rongguang Yu), to have him call off the dogs, a deal is struck: the bullies will leave Dre alone, if Dre enters the upcoming kung fu tournament and takes on his attackers. Han reluctantly agrees to train Dre, his first ever student. They both learn from each other, and through a series of eccentric training methods, we see that Dre is ready for the tournament. He could even win.

The first noteworthy element that immediately sucked me in was the surehanded visuals. There were long stretches of quiet, where the pictures did the talking. Watching Dre’s face as he pulls away from his friends in Detroit, observing the strangeness of the new world in China. There are a number of montages in the film– maybe even one too many– but they all work, and they never feel like arbitrary moments of speeding the plot up. Sometimes the images seamlessly transitioned from one into the other, a bit showy for a director whose most ambitious visual choice to date had been deciding which angle to shoot Steve Martin falling on his face from. Zwart takes full advantage of his Chinese setting, beginning by showing visuals of wide scope, strange behavior, and breathtaking but unusual architecture. Slowly, the eccentricities are traced with colorful sunsets and soul-stirring violins, and they become part of Dre. Corny? Absolutely. Effective? Absolutely. The earnestness of the film makes any cliche feel fresh and heartfelt.

The actors also surprised me from the jump. Jaden Smith is truly his father’s son, delivering a performance that manages to carry a 2.5-hour movie with him located in nearly every frame. He’s cute without being sugarcoated– he has the same sort of ego and swagger at times that his dad carries so effortlessly. When he’s talking himself up and smirking, it’s impossible to not think of Jaden in ten years starring in the same roles his dad played. He also is clearly doing many, if not all, of his own stunts, which adds some additional stakes to the action scenes. His moments of young romance with newcomer Wenwen Han have a real sweetness, and although she likes him a little too soon for realism, it’s the traditional love-at-first-sight, and their connection feels real for mostly inexperienced actors. Another newcomer, Rongguang Yu, is literally pitch-perfect at the villain– in a way, he outdoes the punk kid in the original. In the original, he was obviously a punk, a threat more because of his relative size than his actual volatility and skill. This kid seems legitimately tilted, with the most intense stare this side of Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, and karate skills that at least send him toe-to-toe for a minute or so with Jackie Chan.

This is easily Jackie Chan’s best English-speaking performance to date– by a lot. He shows some true dramatic chops, and he makes Master Han heartbreaking at moments. This script gives Han some real flaws, some more darkness than Mr. Miyagi had. This gives his character a farther path to travel, and Chan changes notably over the course of the film. The little changes make this remake work. The issue of race, while never addressed, add to the outsider feeling– everyone keeps asking if they can touch the black characters’ hair, and there’s a subtext of the parents’ distrust of Dre before they even meet him. The issue of the main character’s ages also comes into play, as watching Ralph Macchio get beat senseless never evoked the same sort of cringes as watching an 11-year-old get truly whooped by six bigger kids. No, this film is still inferior to the original– the storytelling isn’t as sharp, and while I never once checked my watch during the 150 minute run time, some of this film likely could have been condensed. Still, this is an argument that not every remake should be immediately dismissed. On paper, this movie should have sucked. Instead, we get a film that got applause SIX times in my theater. Any film can get cheap applause once– getting earned applause six times shows the movie works. They keep the same elements, but it seems fresh. It’s like a classic car getting a new layer of wax.

~ by russellhainline on June 14, 2010.

One Response to “The Karate Kid: It’s the Best… Around!”

  1. […] Picture: 25. Tangled 24. Cyrus 23. The Town 22. Terribly Happy 21. Shutter Island 20. The Karate Kid 19. Another Year 18. Exit Through The Gift Shop 17. Animal Kingdom 16. Let Me In 15. I Love You […]

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