Silver Screen: The Karate Kid ***
by Bryan Miller
Remakes are so ubiquitous of late that it sometimes seems as if Hollywood was collapsing inward on itself, imploding like a dying star. As such, it's difficult to get enthused about almost any remake, but The Karate Kid is probably among the better of the recent crop, for what that's worth. A movie like the 1984 Karate Kid, already soft-edged and commercial and sequelized into oblivion, bends to this sort of treatment better than a more distinctive film. It's a dubious asset, but an asset nonetheless.
Italian-by-way-of-Ragu Daniel Laruso (Ralph Macchio) is replaced by African American Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), who's four years younger and a great deal cockier than Macchio's nerdy, introverted sixteen-year-old. Dre's mother (Taraji P. Henson) moves her family of two from blighted Detroit to bustling China (a far more exotic relocation than Laruso's jaunt to Southern California), where neither of them knows much about the language or culture.
Dre's defiant outsider status is reinforced early on when he flirts with the wrong girl and draws the ire of her jealous would-be boyfriend Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) and his crew of kung-fu thugs. Cheng's band of bullies train at an enormous martial-arts school that dwarfs the unfriendly confines of the Cobra Kai, but the evil teacher Master Li (Rongguang Yu) is awfully familiar, right down to a paraphrase of the original movie villain's signature line, "Mercy is for the weak!"
Dre gets his ass kicked a few times, enough to attract the sympathies of the stoic handyman Mister Han (Jackie Chan), who agrees to teach his young charge kung fu-- a troublesome detail given the title, the international version of which is The Kung Fu Kid. Of course, Mister Han's lessons teach Dre as much about respect and discipline as self-defense. There's no waxing on or off. Dre instead learns not to leave his jacket on the floor, making viewers wonder if producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith aren't simply giving their kid the most expensive and elaborate housekeeping lesson of all time. But unlike his predecessor, Dre gets to climb a mountain, watch kung-fu masters hypnotize cobra snakes with their minds, and do high kicks on the Great Wall.
Still, it all leads up to a big tournament. Master Li's pupils are gunning for Dre, and it'll take all his determination, plus a little Chinese-mystic medicine from his mentor, to prove he's the best, has the eye of the tiger, et cetera.
Director Harold Zwart does a competent enough job, and screenwriter Christopher Murphey adequately captures the spirit of the original while making a few significant changes. The problem is that the big differences don't add up to nearly enough, while some of the more minor alterations are for the worse.
The Chinese setting turns out to be mostly window dressing. The trials of being an American in China, much less an African American, are only implied and never explored much. Zwart shies away from any notion of racial conflict, which seems an odd choice given the ostentatiously multinational production.
Chan's Mister Han stands up just fine to Pat Morita's Mister Miyagi, which is a significant compliment. But Han's backstory is overbaked, a bit of drunkenly relayed melodrama about his dead wife and son that's so heavy with pathos that it could almost tip into unintentional comedy were it not so well-played by Chan, who is consistently the movie's anchor. He only gets in one fight scene, and even then he defiantly refuses to throw a punch, but his gravitas carries his scenes, and he shows off some impressive acting chops (rimshot).
Smith doesn't fare quite as well. He's got some presence, but his primary acting tool is mugging, so much so that he makes father's performance in Independence Day look like Max Von Sydow doing a Harold Pinter play. He appears to have done some of his own stunts and to have learned martial arts to an impressive degree, but his physical conditioning is undercut by the fact that the action sequences too often rely on wire work. Combine the increased intensity of the kung fu scenes with the fact that they're being played out by twelve-year-olds, and the result is a little silly. Would kids not have been impressed if Dre simply jump-kicked his opponents rather than flipped backwards through the air and sent them flying six feet backwards, in slow-motion? The tournament scene would have been both more convincing and more compelling if viewers could have gotten a better sense of what Dre could really do rather than what the looming stunt choreographers and special-effects team could cook up.
The real downside to this updated, kung-fu-ed Karate Kid is the running time, which clocks in at a robust two-hours-and-twenty minutes. It's far too long, padded with unnecessary subplots that add up to very little. The relationship between Dre and Han, the heart of the movie, too often gets lost among the tangents. There's a pretty good hour-and-forty-five-minute-long movie here, but that extra half-hour is as tiring as picking up and putting on a jacket a thousand times in a row and not actually learning kung fu.