Title: The Karate Kid
Year of Release: 2010
Date Viewed: June 18th, 2010
MPAA Rating: PG
The Karate Kid presents challenges to several people involved in the movie. It challenges the filmmakers to draw their audience in through nostalgia and entertain them through good storytelling. It challenges Jackie Chan to act as mentor to our hero rather than be the hero. And it challenges a young Jaden Smith to prove himself to be more than just a product of nepotism and that he has a place in the competitive world of Hollywood. Did these folks succeed at what they set out to do?
For the short answer: mostly yes. For the long answer, continue reading.
The plot of The Karate Kid does not stray too far from its 1984 roots. The story begins in the city of Detroit. We meet our 12-year-old hero Dre Parker (Jaden Smith). His mother (Taraji Henson) is forced to relocate to China in order to continue working for her company. (I guess she drew the wrong straw.) This of course means Dre has to say goodbye to his friends and meet some new ones in China.
He is lucky to meet Mei Ying (Wenwen Han), a pretty female classmate that seems to be fascinated with his hairstyle. The two fall for each other and seem to have a great thing going until trouble looms around the corner. According to some Chinese religions, all the good luck that a person encounters during the course of life will be balanced with an equal amount of bad luck. Dre's bad luck comes in the form of the other person that has eyes for Mei Ying; one of the star students of the local Kung Fu academy overruled by a ruthless teacher. Offended by Dre's girl wooing and most likely his appearance, the bully rounds up his fellow students to terrorize and beat on Dre every chance they get. On a fateful day, the maintenance man at Dre's apartment Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) intercepts a beatdown and fends off the attackers. Impressed by his moves, Dre requests Mr. Han to teach him martial arts skills so that he wouldn't have be scared of his enemies anymore. Han agrees only after witnessing firsthand the merciless nature of the Academy students. Dre is given a chance to fight back with honor by participating in a special kung fu tournament where he gets to battle his adversaries one-on-one for moral glory.
This is fascinating and all, but there are some things that I want to know that is not shown in the movie. For instance, how does Dre expect to survive in a Chinese school without understanding very much Chinese dialect? And why does his mother show such little concern about her son running around from place to place unsupervised? I can't think of a more intimidating situation for a kid. Wait a minute. I get it now. Dre grew up in Detroit. Any place looks like Disneyland compared to Detroit. No wonder they embrace their new surroundings so quickly.
My biggest fear going into The Karate Kid was that there would no surprises. I was expecting a formulaic showcase of inspirational material and would have been fine with that. To my delight, there was a nice surprise concerning the character of Mr. Han. Turns out he is not the wise old master that we are accustomed to seeing in this genre. He may know everything about Kung Fu but he does not know how to live with himself. Mr. Han hides a tragic secret that has kept him in despair for most of his life. The guidance and wisdom he offers to Dre gives him a new sense of satisfaction. Exposing the wise man's flaws is unconventional but works here in humanising the character and bringing more credibility to the story.
Other characters seem wasted. Dre's mother is mostly regulated to gasping in horror every time her son takes a nasty hit from an enemy. And Dre's first English-speaking peer is quickly forgotten about after the fifteen-minute mark. Most of the movie is devoted to Dre's relationship with Han; the only two characters that are absolutely essential to develop.
I hope Jackie Chan earns some special attention for his portrayal of Han. Here he breaks away from his typecasted "goofy nice guy caught in the wrong place" character and delivers some sincere drama. I have seen Chan in serious roles before so there wasn't any doubt in my mind that he could pull it off. Having said that, I was still impressed with the high caliber he reached here. I remember reading years ago that Chan had been studying under an acting coach so he could adapt to more dramatic roles when the time came to slow down his stuntman act. The work paid off big time and you can see the result for yourself.
As far as Jaden Smith goes....I decided to reserve my judgment despite him failing to impress me with his previous efforts. To become the next Karate Kid, it required a lot of training and focus. With both of his famous parents producing, Jaden didn't really need to audition. I'm sure the money from the Smith family put into the project was enough of an entry fee. I don't believe Jaden was the best person for the job but I also believe in giving credit where credit is due. The kid pulled it off. Dre's transition from fish-out-of-water to Kung Fu master was believable enough to work. There were also times when Jaden seemed to inherit mannerisms from his old man. From the dance moves to the intense stare, it sometimes felt like watching a young Will on the screen. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if Will himself was on the set coaching his son along the way. "Okay, Jaden. Watch this............See what I did there? Now you try it."
It's kind of a shame that the studio went the safe route by naming the movie "The Karate Kid" instead of the original choice of "The Kung Fu Kid." It shows a lack of confidence in your own product by tying it too closely to what is being imitated. There is enough good filmmaking here so that it wouldn't be necessary to piggyback on nostalgia. Besides, there is no Karate in the movie at all so it doesn't even make sense.
When our liking to Dre reaches its peak, the story reaches its finale at the Kung Fu tournament. Hollywood seems to hate long fight scenes for God knows whatever reason so the fights in this film are kept short. The good news is they are still exciting to watch and offer several "cheer for me now" moments that get the heart racing. Though the violence never exceeds PG levels, some parents may be a little shocked at how hard-hitting the action is. Those blows to the head are amplified loud enough for the hurt to be felt by everyone.
It all leads to a more than satisfactory conclusion and makes the film's one-hundred and forty minute running time worth it.
Overall, The Karate Kid is a welcome addition to the multiplex's summer lineup. All the right ingredients are there to make up for the bad ones. If you're looking for a feel-good film for a little kick (no pun intended) of motivation, this one might do the trick.