The Karate Kid Review: Wax On, Turn Off

July 27, 2010 by  
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KK300THE KARATE KID (PG): On General Release Wednesday July 28th

As the Hollywood remake machine marches unstoppably forward, there were always going to be casualties. I never thought I’d see the day when 1984’s beloved classic The Karate Kid got the treatment though and it’s with a heavy heart that I write this review. With the 2010 version of The Karate Kid all the subtlety and charm of the original has been leached out, to leave an admittedly slick but soulless and cynical remake.

The plot will be familiar to anyone that’s seen the 1984 classic. Dre (Jaden Smith) moves with his mother to a new neighbourhood (in the original from New Jersey to Los Angeles, here from Detroit to China). While struggling to fit in his new environment, he attracts the eye of Meiying and with it the ire of one of her former boyfriends, Cheng. Dre is summarily beaten to a pulp and goes home in disgrace only to be picked on time and again in and out of school. Help comes from an unlikely ally – a handyman called Mr Han (Jackie Chan) who reluctantly teaches the young boy Kung Fu as a means to defend himself.

If a remake is to be successful then it must either improve upon or significantly deviate from the original material – otherwise it’s pointless. This can be done well: Ocean’s 11 was a great remake of a largely forgotten and mediocre Frank Sinatra vehicle. Unfortunately, this 2010 version borrows too heavily from the 1984 classic and all it adds is running time.

Firstly Jaden Smith is far too young for this screenplay. In the 1984 original, Daniel was a 17 year old being bullied by kids the same age that ran him off the road with their motorcycles and gave him serious, crippling beatings at every opportunity. Daniel’s life was in genuine jeopardy and consequently septuagenarian Mr Miyagi fighting off six youths was both impressive and daring. By contrast Dre’s harassment at the hands of some feisty 12 year olds is hardly anything to write home about – what are they going to do, steal his Pokemon cards?

Smith’s young age also leads to some awkward moments with love interest Meiying – an arcade dance scene in which the girl gyrates to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face is particularly unsettling.

Pat Morita’s Oscar-nominated performance showed Miyagi to be a complicated and sympathetic character, whose tragic back-story was gradually revealed as the film wore on; whose kindness and generosity shone through an initially gruff exterior and whose trickery, mischievousness and good humour were made all the more prominent by his age.

KKJadenJackie Chan’s Mr Han is simply a recluse, a grief stricken man with a dark back story but with none of the depth that Miyagi’s had. Chan’s acting is actually rather good, but can do little with a script which scene-steals from the first screenplay but does nothing with it.

1984’s Karate Kid united two outcasts together – Miyagi an older Japanese man was largely misunderstood by the community he served, Daniel was adrift in a new place whose rules he couldn’t fathom – and their touching friendship formed the backbone of the story. There’s no sense of emerging friendship in this version, Dre’s exclamation of “You’re the best friend I’ve ever had” seems ludicrous by comparison.

Its two hour twenty running time is also padded out mercilessly by location porn – it’s the second film ever (after The Last Emperor) to be allowed to film inside the Forbidden City, so every opportunity is given to establishing shots of China – sweeping pans of the countryside, groups of people doing Tai Chi and a laughable sequence where Dre and Mr Han train on The Great Wall Of China. All of this feels like travel brochure rather than a necessary part of the film.

Daniel’s story was all the more poignant because he was a fish out of water in a seemingly familiar American environment. His lament that he “doesn’t understand the rules here” is completely stripped of subtlety by Dre’s story: a black kid dumped unceremoniously into a land so obviously different to his native Detroit that any contrast isn’t necessary. This is just one example of this remake’s ham-fisted storytelling which occurs so regularly that writer Christopher Murphey’s middle name may as well be “Baconthumbs”.

The original’s climactic confrontation features one of the most inspirational montages in movie history, backed by a rising score and culminating in Daniel performing the Crane Kick, – a move representative of all he’d learnt from Miyagi. By contrast Dre wins the tournament by delivering a back flip to his opponent’s skull despite this having no connection to anything that Mr Han had taught him.

As a standalone movie, it’s not irredeemable. Smith and Chan are competent actors and its production values are high but what this movie lacks is a soul. It’s a cynical attempt to cash in on The Karate Kid brand. Karate is a Japanese martial art, yet it’s set in China where Mr Han teaches Dre Kung Fu. At the very least this is disrespectful to the history of martial arts and at the most racist – one Eastern culture is not interchangeable with the next.

And if you’re going to make a movie which doesn’t even attempt to improve on or at least deviate in the slightest from the original, then all you’ve made is a vanity project for Jaden Smith and a two hour advert for China.

Desperate for more action? Read our interview with the cast.

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  1. wazza23 says:

    well im going to see this movie tommez……………….!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! think it iz going to be grezzyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

  2. wazza23 says:

    an for u (old) people grezzy means great or good

  3. EJF Ripley says:

    Sounds to me like you made up your mind before ever seeing the movie. I especially like where you complain that the new script is too much like the original, then immediately after that complain about one of the differences. Clearly with you, there was never any possibility for the 2010 version to get a fair viewing.

  4. admin says:

    The point was that if you’re going to remake a film, then you should do something creative with it. Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, regardless of what you think of it, is a vastly different film than the Abel Ferrara version and should be praised for its inventiveness.

    You can’t just recreate exact scenes and expect them to have the same impact. And I was complaining not so much about the deviation from the orginal script but because the new parts are watered down and cheap. I’d welcome a complete overhaul but this is a cynical cash in. The cloned parts are badly done and the new parts are rubbish.

  5. Ceycll Reltsma says:

    There are good ones and not-so-good remakes. The original Karate Kid may be old enough that many viewers have never seen it. I hope those that like this one will find themselves a copy of the orig. Once you get past the horrid hair and headbands, that movie still carries weight. It’s not so much about karate (despite the title,) but more about the bond formed between two people when they share a vital developmental experience. Sort of like Xeroxing the Mona Lisa — exactly the same, only um, not. All of the unspoken moments between the two leads were what really made anyone even care that the Kid eventually got really good at Karate. The relationship is what it’s all about. As for flashier, newer, more costly remakes: eventually glittery stuff all looks the same, and there has to be something more than flash and fancy footwork. I wasn’t going to rush out to see this one anyway, but I do hope that anyone who hasn’t seen the original takes the time to find a copy and give that one a shot.