You can’t judge a film by its title. And you mustn’t in the case of The Karate Kid, should you become confused and cynical! After all, it’s set in China and features Jackie Chan, so Karate is never even mentioned. It’s just a slightly offensive marketing ploy to live off the back of the 1984 hit, which makes you question the motives of making it at all and dismiss it out of hand. They really should have proudly named it “The King-Fu Kid”, because despite being a near step-for-step remake, it’s actually very good and deserves a chance to stand on its own.
It’s a story about Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) who moves with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) from Detroit to Bejing. Struggling to fit in, he tries and fails to stand up to a crowd of bullies led by Zhenwei Wang. He becomes afraid of even going to school until meeting Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the quiet maintenance man who knows Kung-Fu and who reluctantly agrees to teach Dre. A local, ruthless Kung-Fu teacher (Rongguang Yu) has agreed his students will leave Dre alone, so long as he fights in an upcoming tournament.
Jaden Smith does really well in the title role and has clearly put a lot of work in that demands respect. As well as the physical aspects, he also has his father Will’s cheeky humour and timing. Importantly, all the young characters act very well with the adults. Often this kind of film underwrites the grown-ups and the relationship between Dre and Mr. Han especially is very real.
As Mr. Han, Jackie Chan is just magic in what might be his best English speaking role. Through no fault of his own, he doesn’t have Pat Morita’s natural unassuming calm (well, he is Jackie Chan!) that made Mr. Miyagi so iconic, but he is just as poignant and brings a beautifully judged humour to the character. The moment he rescues Dre by disabling six bullies without throwing a punch is wonderful. It’s brilliantly choreographed; thrilling and very funny in that Chaplin-esque way Chan is so good at. From that point on, he keeps the film alive and proves why he’s one of the biggest movie stars around. As with the 1984 film, the last half is predictable, but that’s the curse of sports based tournament movies and you’ll nevertheless be on the edge of your seat!
The film doesn’t flow as nicely as the first version, and that could be an effect of over-familiarity, but this version does lack some potential by using a much younger cast, despite their considerable ability. While Zhenwei Wang brings a convincingly vicious ferocity to the role of the main bully, Wen Wen Han as Mei Ying (the girl Dre has a crush on) is awkward and the story loses momentum in those sequences. They are just too young to convince for a romantic angle. The original plot worked as a coming of age story that teenagers could identify with, so the test will be if the young audience take to Jaden as their Karate Kid as much as my generation took to Ralph Macchio.
So you might be cynical about why it was made and how it was marketed, but give it a chance, because it’s honest and likeable. The Karate Kid has had a very good reception in the States and has confused people by beating The A-Team, but it’s easy to see why. This is a children’s film that respects its audience, including the adults, and outside of Pixar animation, that is rare and very reassuring.
The Karate Kid is a great family film, with a solid message and deserves to become as loved as its reassuringly cheesy predecessor. If only it hadn’t have been let down by the silly title.