The Karate Kid
What It Is
Eleven-year-old Dre (Jaden Smith) is miserable as The Karate Kid begins. He and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) are moving from Detroit, the only home he’s ever known, to Beijing. She’s been transferred for work and, more importantly, as she puts it, they’re going to start a new life, following the death of his father.
The movie doesn’t explain how “daddy died,” but it does take careful note of Dre’s sense of loss and dislocation: his friends and family see him off when he leaves, one even bestowing on him a treasured skateboard, so he can bring a piece of his past with him to his new home in a strange land. That strangeness and Dre’s understandable wariness are made clear again and again: he doesn’t want to learn Chinese using his mom’s laptop lessons, he doesn’t want to play with the kids in the park near their new apartment, and he doesn’t much want to engage with their sullen maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan).
As everyone who’s seen the 1984 Karate Kid knows, Mr. Han is this film’s Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), Dre’s new father figure and mentor. This relationship is set up when Mr. Han sees Dre disrespect his mother (by not hanging up his jacket) and then, more emphatically, when Dre is beaten, brutally, by a local bully, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Mr. Han’s expertise in kung fu (not karate, which is Japanese) proves vital in Dre’s transformation: not only does the boy learn how to fight Cheng (a confrontation arranged as a climactic, colorful, exciting tournament), but he also learns to be open to new experiences, appreciate his hardworking mother, and even help Mr. Han get over a past trauma of his own. All of this growing up is topped off by Dre’s new girlfriend, a very pretty classmate named Meiying (Wenwen Han).
Why It’s Fun
As winning as the essential storyline may be, this film’s main energy comes from Jaden Smith’s incredible charm and comic timing. While it’s clear that he’s learned more than a few moves and facial expressions from his multi-talented dad, Will Smith, Jaden is a seriously gifted performer in his own right. Dre isn’t an easy role, either: he’s alternately grumpy, selfish, and obnoxious, as well as cute, earnest, and sympathetic.
The scenes between Dre and Mr. Han are the film’s emotional and energetic center. The fight and menace scenes are less surprising, and do tend to go on.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of the old film will recognize many moments, updated but not original here. (And fans of Jackie Chan will be heartened to see him in this role, which doesn’t ask him to make silly faces or act out preposterously, as he did in the terrible movie The Spy Next Door. Here he is earnest, convincing, and shares a lovely chemistry with young Jaden Smith.
The story itself is uplifting and sweet, even if you have seen it before.
What To Be Aware Of
The movie is long, over two hours, and the introductory material might have some viewers feeling restless. It seems too long before we meet Mr. Han, who changes the rhythm and focus of the film for the better.
When Dre is frustrated by his new situation near the beginning of the film, he and his mother have a few arguments in which he is childishly angry, and his tears are moving. During an argument with Mr. Han, he goes so far as to use the word “ass” a few times, before he recovers himself and shows respect to his mentor.
The “romance” with Meiying is cursory (and leads to a kiss). You might be left wanting to know more about her (she’s a violin prodigy whose father pressures her to be perfect), as she is primarily in place to support Dre.
When Mr. Han reveals his own tragedy to Dre, he’s first very drunk (a point underlined when Dre spots a bottle of liquor on a table), then violent (beating up a car with a hammer), and then grief-stricken. It’s a lengthy, difficult, and emotional scene, but young viewers may be helped by watching along with Dre, who responds with genuine empathy and maturity.
Cheng is plainly a bully looking for trouble from frame one. He glares at Dre repeatedly as the camera emphasizes his mad face, so you’re likely to feel intimidated just as Dre feels. But even as the movie sets up this opposition, it establishes that Cheng is not wholly evil, but instead that he’s encouraged to behave this way by his own kung fu teacher, Master Li (Rongguang Yu). Instructing his students to have “no mercy” on opponents, he drills them in formation and relentlessly, a method that Mr. Han immediately identifies as “bad teaching.”
The violent scenes are hard-hitting, especially when Cheng first attacks Dre in the park (resulting in a surprisingly minor black eye, considering the wallop delivered to his head), then chases him into an alley and kicks and hits him until he can’t stand and his vision is blurry, and at last during the tournament, when this film replays the scene from the original: Cheng breaks Dre’s leg on purpose (and then replays it again, in slow motion, on a screen in the very well-outfitted arena). The hits are loud, Dre’s pain is palpable, and Cheng and his friends take evident, nasty glee in the beat-downs.
8 out of 10
The Karate Kid
Director: Harald Zwart
Cast: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Rongguang Yu, Zhenwei Wang
Studio: Sony Pictures
US Premiere: June 11, 2010
UK Premiere: July 16, 2010