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Not only does Sony have the audacity to remake a classic 80s film from my childhood such as The Karate Kid, they change the heritage from Japan to China and the titular karate to kung fu. At one point the new movie was named The Kung Fu Kid, an appropriate alteration considering the very disparate cultures being utilized, but wait, we are dumb Americans that don’t know the difference between the two anyway. China and Japan? You mean Asia right? Don’t they all practice karate straight from the womb? Yeah, I’m almost positive that exchange is pretty similar to the one sparking the title change back to The Karate Kid. At least this way the name would stir up nostalgic feelings—although I’d assume more bad than good considering how dear to heart the original is to so many—getting the buzz train out of the station since any news is good news.

For all these reasons and more, I wanted to hate this movie. Therefore, no one was more surprised than I to leave the theatre thinking they did a pretty bang-up job updating the tale and keeping the underlying theme of conquering one’s fears alive. Coming from the guy who brought my least favorite film of 2009, The Pink Panther 2—and the rest of his English language fare is no better—Harald Zwart’s expertise behind the camera did nothing to quell my feelings of dread. But he not only gets some good performances out of the cast, the guy gets his crew to orchestrate some really good kung fu fights, a couple well shot overheads during an extended chase scene between Jaden Smith’s lead Dre Parker and the six Chinese youngsters looking to pay him back for an impromptu muddy water bath, and a few nice, if obvious, transitional cuts from lit sparks behind a kiss to a wielding torch and a full extension kick to the tournament trophy mimicking just such a pose.

The writers have actually done good changing the setting to China—why was karate so prevalent in California in the first place—causing the culture and fact an apartment handyman, at the wink-wink-nudge-nudge Beverly Hills complex, knows kung fu to be believable. Dre gets bullied after falling for a pretty young violinist, hiding within himself until Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) lends a helping hand. The lack of knowledge on behalf of Dre causes the film to entrench itself into a ‘fish-out-of-water’ type plotline, using misinterpretation and ignorance to earn a few laughs while also bolstering the idea of respect at the base of it all. Sherry Parker, played by the ever-wonderful Taraji P. Henson, has been transferred to Asia for her job, needing the money to raise Dre since her husband has been deceased now for a few years. She is doing her best to learn the language and get her son excited at the prospect of living abroad, but he is a stubborn, borderline insolent kid like most of America’s youth, constantly fighting against the reality of his situation, wishing he could just go back to the way things were.

Meeting the kind, shy, and jubilant Mei Ying (Wenwen Han) should lift his spirits, but in fact only leads him to opposition at the hands of the Fighting Dragon School’s students. Their prize pupil Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) starts building up a rapport as the villain of the film, only to be superseded by the eventual introduction of Master Li (Rongguang Yu), a man who had the potential of being as loathsome as Martin Kove’s John Kreese before the middle third excludes him completely. Instead we watch Dre be a kid, fall into puppy love, get pushed around a bit, and start to be proactive in his defensive prowess. Smith is not the greatest of young actors, showing his craft by ‘acting’ too much, a shame since he is very charismatic and loose during instances of having fun laughing and dancing. But then I recall early episodes of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and see the unfathomable metamorphosis Dad Will went through during his own career, showing that Jaden most certainly has a bright future ahead talent-wise—he’s already starting to look more and more like his father.

His interactions with Mei Ying are authentic and his battles with Cheng and gang set the stage nicely for the film’s inevitable collision course on the mat. Yet, while kids being kids worked for me, taking out the antagonists for a good portion of the story was a mistake. I almost forgot there was a tournament coming with all the talk of hanging jackets, pinky swears, respecting the honor of Chinese families and mothers, and Mr. Han getting over his past’s darkness lying dormant in the recesses of his mind. Even the training is abbreviated, only using one monotonous chore as a basis to the choreography before the splendor of China’s landscape and architecture divert our eyes from the lack of kung fu. The Forbidden City and dramatic puppetry during a Chinese Valentine’s Day celebration at the Shadow Theatre do add an exotic intrigue the original filmmakers tried to infuse into the series with The Karate Kid, Part II residing in Okinawa.

The biggest positive of The Karate Kid in my mind, though, was what could have been its largest liability. Jackie Chan has become such a caricature lately that expecting anything other than a jokey performance was impossible. Yet he delivers one of the best roles I’ve seen from him, expressing a lot of emotion, both pent up and released, doing a great service and honor to the late Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi. He shows that he can do the dramatic stuff with the best of them and hopefully has proven such to himself, maybe gaining the confidence to say no to the fare he’s blindly gone into lately. The film also shows he still has what it takes to fight, going against six kids less than half his age, causing them to punch and knock each other out while he blocks and twirls. It’s no small feat either since these kids are phenomenal kung fu athletes.

The fights at the end are riveting and adrenaline pumping as a result—twelve year olds lock horns with amazing speed, flipping bodies and going for the kill. Changing the age range from high school to middle school looked odd on paper, but the skill of these kids is unparalleled, adding a layer of cool while at the same time somewhat detrimental to the good versus evil dynamic. They are only boys doing what their Master says, a man himself so nonexistent that the true enemy at play becomes Dre’s own ego and lack of focus. He fights with himself more than anyone else, turning this remake into a different beast altogether. It’s still a feel-good story that should resonate with the youth of today, even infusing a little Lady Gaga to the mix, garnering rapturous applause at the final freeze-frame from the heavily child-populated theatre I saw it in. For me, though, Cobra Kai will always be my dojo of choice.

The Karate Kid 5/10

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photography:
[1] Jackie Chan as “Mr. Han” and Jaden Smith as “Dre Parker” in Columbia Pictures’ THE KARATE KID. Photo By: Jasin Boland
[2] Jaden Smith as “Dre Parker” and Taraji P.Henson as his mother “Sherry” in Columbia Pictures’ THE KARATE KID. Photo By: Jasin Boland

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