The Karate Kid Review: Wax On, Turn Off
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.
Jackie 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.