By Dave Campbell | June 11, 2010
Director: Harald Zwart
Writers: Christopher Murphey (screenplay), Robert Mark Kamen (story)
Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson
The Karate Kid (2010) introduces us to Twelve year old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his widowed mother Sherry Parker (Taraji P. Henson) as they are packing up in Detroit, Michigan to start a new life in Beijing, China. Sherry has been offered a transfer with the automobile company she works for in the Motor City as the economic fallout is apparent around them and Sherry sees this as the only way to provide Dre with the quality of life he needs. Once in Beijing, Dre makes a friend in the apartment building who is also American and shows him the neighborhood park. Dre’s is quickly distracted as his eye is caught by a girl named Mei Ying who is sitting on a park bench with her violin. As Dre approaches Mei Ying to introduce himself and begins to flirt, a bully named Cheng comes to interject. Dre attempts to defend himself, but Cheng’s kung fu is obviously much stronger as a restrained Mei Ying helplessly watches Dre get his ass handed to him.
Unaware of what has happened to Dre, his mom takes Dre to his first day of school and realizes that Dre has covered a black eye with her makeup, which he said he got by running into a pole. While at school, Dre is mercilessly confronted by the Cheng gang (Cheng and friends), who terrorize him everyday at school. His only highlight is his friendship with Mei Ying and his appreciation of her musical talent. The bully’s relentless attacks seem to have no end in sight until just before the Cheng gang corner Dre out on the street, his apartment building maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) appears out of nowhere to teach them a lesson with his own kung fu style (I’m thinking hamster style).
After this Mr. Han takes Dre with him to confront Cheng’s infamous kung fu master at the master’s very own school…only to discover where their mentality of “NO WEAKNESS. NO PAIN. NO MERCY”, comes from. Dre and Mr. Han are challenged to a fight, but Mr. Han quickly points to a poster on the school wall and says that Dre will fight them at the upcoming kung fu tournament. Mr. Han takes Dre under his wing and they begin the long process of training via Han’s unconventional but very effective ancient techniques. He makes Dre complete the simple but tiresome tasks of “put on your jacket, take it off, hang it up, take it down, drop it on the floor, and pick it up” over and over for days/weeks. Dre finally breaks, tired of this “seemingly useless” training. Mr. Han then explains that everything they do is kung fu and that with strength and firmness he now already knows how to defend himself.
Dre’s mom Sherry shows up at training one day to take Mr. Han and Dre to a local festival where Dre meets up with Mei Ying. She has an upcoming audition to be accepted into a prestigious music academy and her and Dre pinky swear to be at each-others event for support as they seal it in a kiss. Dre’s training continues to pick up and Mr. Han takes Dre to the mountains where he was raised and where Mr. Han learned from his father. Mr. Han continues to teach Dre priceless lessons reflective not only of kung fu, but of life. Queue montage where endurance, speed, and flexibility are learned, on the Great Wall of China! Now Dre must face his enemies to gain their respect while also proving to Mei Ying’s parents that he is worthy of her friendship in order to overcome the obstacles of his new life in China.
Dre is obviously this versions Daniel-san and Mr. Han is the new Mr. Mr. Miyagi…and since we’ve moved from Japanese to Chinese culture and martial arts, this film needs to be correctly called The Kung Fu Kid, like it’s international title…but I digress.
Ultimately the new take on The Karate Kid was more enjoyable than expected, and in all honesty better than I hoped it would be (growing up on the original). There were a couple of scenes of forced cheese ball lines or emotional moments that felt somewhat hollow, but the overall performances of the film seriously impressed me. This is hands down Jackie Chan’s best U.S. acting performance to date. The Karate Kid isn’t Chan’s usual “fight scene-laughs-fight scene repeat” formula costarring Chris Tucker or Owen Wilson. What we get from him in this film is restraint and subtlety with dramatic timing and moving emotion.
Guess what? Jaden Smith wasn’t too bad either, and mostly held his own from scene to scene. It’s pretty wild to see how much his attitude, mannerisms, and timing are a scaled down version of his father’s, actor Will Smith. The bully Cheng, played by Zhenwei Wang was a true unexpected highlight of the film. His hauntingly evil dramatic presence and precision in the brutally choreographed fight scenes make him a total baddie bad ass you’ll love to hate.Taraji P. Henson has already proven herself as a notable actor and adds a believable yet limited character to her resume as a modern single mother doing what it takes to make a life for her child.
So the carbon residue is apparent, yet the film isn’t a total copy. It’s the same, yet different; think of it more like a cover song, homage, or tribute. The technical plot structure points are intact and the memorable scenes are all there; just slightly altered and updated for a current audience of today’s youth or young at heart. We still get an ancient healing technique, an arcade scene, the drunken master, NO MERCY, and a finishing move…not exactly the “crane kick” we all mimicked in the 80’s, but wow it’s a “finishing move” for sure.
Much of the film retains a little bit of indie sensibilities and feel, but some of the updates really pulled me out of this film. For example; what the hell is going on with the video game-esque instant replays and avatars on the gymnasium wall scoreboard? It puts what we saw at the recent Olympic Games to shame. To me The Karate Kid (2010) is in no way a replacement of the 1984 original, but it will probably ruffle the feathers of some die hard fans due to it’s takeaways. However, this remake still retains some success in reminding us what its like to be a kid, by retelling a timeless tale of a displaced boy out of his element, just trying to belong it in his new surroundings.