I shouldn’t admit this but I feel I must preface this review with the following disclosure: I have never seen the original Karate Kid! Yes I know this blasphemes me as I’m reviewing the remake, but whether you’ve seen the original or not this Disney remake pays tribute to the original, delivers a solid and highly entertaining story, and will make fans new and old yearn to experience the original work.
Dre (Jaden Smith) and his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Hensen) move from Detroit to Beijing a new job opportunity arises. As if dealing with the culture shock isn’t enough for young Dre, he is continually preyed upon by a group of young, experienced kung-fu fighters who train at a prestigious studio where the motto is “No mercy!” When Dre is saved by his apartment’s maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) during a fight it seems appropriate that the man can teach the boy how to fight off the bullies. In learning the art of kung-fu Dre learns respect, friendship and honor while training for a tournament that will test him and force him to confront his enemies.
I had absolutely no interest in seeing this movie as my disclosure about is proof of but by the end of the film I not only wanted to see the original but it wasn’t because the remake is bad, it’s that it’s a wonderful film! That’s not to say this new version doesn’t pay loving tribute to the original Ralph Macchio film as there are a slew of loving gags that even the novice fan will notice like Mr. Han waxing his car and Dre getting into the famous crane kick position. The biggest advantage this movie has is the switch in location. Moving the setting to Bejing allows the film to spend a large amount of time exploring the art of kung-fu in some gorgeous territory like the Great Wall of China. Having Dre, a young African-American boy, being transplanted to an Asian location where he doesn’t know the language or customs heightens the culture shock than if it was a white American because not only must Dre deal with the typical issues that any American living in a foreign country would, but there’s an added implied stigma associated with his race as seen when his new friend Meiying’s (Wenwen Han) father thinks he’s “bad for her life.” This is relatively strong for a children’s film that would typically shy away from this. The fight scenes are by and large the main reason people will flock to this film and they are exquisite from the choreography to the way they’re shot. I was very surprised the movie didn’t resort to the jerky camera techniques and slow-motion that most action/fighting movies employ nowadays. The fight scenes do have their fair show of the slow-motion but it’s mostly utilized in the beginning and dropped quickly. Here you can actually see and experience how the moves flow and connect especially in the finale. Another interesting choice the movie decides to go with is all-around lack of humor for a film that’s being marketed to kids. Aside from a few lines where Dre says “ass” and Hensen acting like the typical mother that will get giggles here and there, there are no one-liners or quippy jokes that are thrust into the script making this movie a surprisingly serious drama that just happens to be geared to the young demographic.
The chemistry between Smith and Chan is what this movie needs in order to succeed and it works perfectly. Not only do these two actors work well in the training montages, but their slower dialogue scenes are perfect. Chan is remarkably subdued in his performance here, not at all the campy martial artist seen in the Rush Hour films. Here Chan plays Mr. Han as a man burdened by grief and loss due to the death of his wife and child, a man who doesn’t leave his house and refuses to take any joy in life. A touching scene with Mr. Han laying out the scene of his family’s death pulls at the heartstrings and proves to anyone who doubted that Chan works well in drama. Smith does have a bad tendency to imitate his famous father when he’s not fighting but overall he’s an enjoyable presence in the movie. He still has a long way to go if he wants to branch out into other genres but here he gives 150% in the fight scenes, as well he should since he trained for months to do this movie. Dre does have a tendency to get on people’s nerves but when he’s fighting it is astonishing, especially when Smith gets into some crazy positions.
The movie doesn’t like to resort to over-the-top wirework or stunts that cannot be accomplished by the actors, which makes it all the more noticeable in the few scenes where wirework is used. Smith did his own stunts and it all looks legit but in the few scenes with the opposing team the wirework looks ridiculous, especially in a scene where the kids “fly” over a wall. The film didn’t have to use it and when it is in use it looks laughably bad. For a PG movie there are a few curses but a particular scene had me a bit fidgety and if you’re a parent you might want to take notice. There’s a scene where Dre and Meiying go to some type of arcade and play a dancing game only to have sweet Meiying start dancing like Miley Cyrus on stage. The gyrating and squats in a short skirt just seemed a bit odd especially because right before this Dre dances which is enough dancing at all in this movie. It’s a bit suggestive and the movie didn’t need to resort to it and the statement overall as Dre says is that she dances “like an American.” It’s odd, it’s creepy and it was just unnecessary.
Aside from a few throwaways scenes that weren’t needed The Karate Kid is an excellent film and should surprise anyone who expected this to suck horribly. Smith and Chan work excellently together and the fights are overly choreographed with jerky cameras that don’t let you focus. This is a heartwarming and rather serious film that families can enjoy and if you haven’t seen the original, you’ll want to after watching this!