MPAA Rating: PG/Genre: Martial Arts Drama/Stars: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Zhenwei Wang, Yu Rongguang, Luke Carberry, Shijia Lü, Ji Wang, Zhensu Wu, Zhiheng Wang, Yi Zhao, Zhang Bo, Cameron Hillman, Ghye Samuel Brown/Runtime: 140 minutes
I think it is safe to say that if you were going to remake a movie in the vein of The Karate Kid you had better darn sure you had a movie on your hands that was at the very least good if not respectful of the original. I mean it’s one thing if you remake a lesser known title from another era of filmmaking and have the end result be a complete flop, but it’s something else entirely if the movie being remade is one that doesn’t need that in the first place. Suffice it to say The Karate Kid from 1984 is most assuredly one the latter category. Indeed here is a film that has beloved by nearly all who watch it, and comes equipped with a terrific message about honor, honesty, and the power of friendship among other things all threaded into a beautifully-regaled narrative that is bolstered by terrific performances especially in regards to Pat Morita’s iconic turn as Mr. Miyagi. This of course brings us to the take from 2010, a take that was already worrisome because the guy helming it also gave us shudder Steve Martin’s 2nd Pink Panther movie. Of course making matters even more worrisome was the arrival of a trailer that had no Miyagi, no Daniel, no Cobra Kai, and transitioned everything over from the U.S. all the way to China. Suffice it to say for those of us who love and cherish the original as much as we do, the time was coming near to start getting our pitchforks and torches ready. Then we saw the finished product and actually found ourselves astonishingly surprised. Yes this movie was an A-Z straight remake like we thought it was, but it also was constructed around the same heart and passion that the 1984 one had been. Yes it does have its flaws, but ultimately the 2010 take on The Karate Kid is still a winner thanks to that heart and passion to say nothing of wonderful work done on both sides of the camera in ensuring this was a movie that would touch the heart rather than go for the leg.
The plot is as follows: In the aftermath of his dad’s demise, a young man by the name of Dre and his mom Sherry decide to pack up and move to China in an attempt to start over. To say Dre is not happy about this would be a mild understatement. Rather, he wants nothing to do with either this place or this culture he doesn’t understand and of course he’s already having issues with kids his age since some of them don’t like that our intrepid hero is fond of a girl by the name of Mei Ying. An opinion this group’s leader verifies in the form of beating up our hero pretty bad. Yet it is in the midst of one particularly nasty beating that we see Dre’s life change forever when he is saved by a local named Mr. Han. To that end, we see the two forming quite the attachment, but when Dre has his new pal/mentor see how badly martial arts are being schooled courtesy of an instructor named Master Li, we see Han decide to show our hero genuine martial arts not only so he can protect himself, but so we can also regain his lost honor and get the bullies to back off. Thus can our intrepid hero learn not only what he needs so his life can be bully free, but also what he needs to be a better person now and always? That I will leave for you to discover for yourself dear reader….
Now due to being in possession of narratives that are virtually alike and distinguishable by only a few differences of a superficial nature, I think the only element that is different between the two is the nostalgic element found with the original. Indeed the slice of cinematic pie from 1984 is one which has earned the chance to be in the pop culture pantheon due to how it teaches its audience about such things as personal honor, integrity, and friendship among other important values. To that end, the remake from 2010 also is able to showcase these very values even whilst distinguishing things ever so slightly. Indeed the fact that both of these movies manage to showcase just how incredible success can mean to us as people says a lot about what constitutes as a genuinely great film. Yes terrific performances, spot-on editing, beautiful work from the cinematography department, and wonderful helmsmanship are all key ingredients in any film, but both takes of this narrative are able to showcase that it is what is under the surface that show the true heart of a narrative and give it meaning that extends beyond the ingredients that are surface level. Suffice it to say then that it is those ingredients which helped the original Karate Kid succeed admirably and this take succeed just as well.
Now when taking into account the fact that this remake does next to zero when it comes to anything novel with this material, I wouldn’t blame you for asking me is “why should I waste my time seeing this then?” Of course the fairly obvious answer is “to help the studio who made it make money”. Yet in all fairness there is more to appreciate about this film besides answers that could pop up in the midst of a CPA report. For starters, there is the fact that giving a new generation their own take on this with the ideals of the original intact is a fairly noble cinematic aspiration. In addition, this take on The Karate Kid also manages to operate as a cinematic calling card for the acting gifts that young Jaden Smith (son of one Will Smith) does have….with the right material (yes I’m looking at you After Earth). Indeed after giving a powerhouse performance in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness, Jaden Smith gives us a top-tier level performance in this slice of cinematic pie that shows he is a fairly talented actor himself. Indeed he not only comprehends the narrative, but also the lessons it is trying to convey, and the pathos at the heart of it on a scale that a lot of other, more screen-tested thespians might have had difficulty with. Indeed Smith’s skill at giving this particular character the full emotional spectrum as the film plays out not only gives us a character that is extremely realistic, but also incredibly sympathetic as well thus resulting in one heck of a performance.
Now even though the narrative is front and center, the 2010 take on The Karate Kid is also home to top-notch work in terms of filmmaking as well. Indeed film helmer Harald Zwart makes the choice to open his take with a revelation that is quite emotional to say the least as well as one that shows that there is more to this film than what people might have thought at first. Indeed we don’t even make it 5 minutes into this slice of cinematic pie and already hurtles an emotional gut punch that shows us not only that our main hero has had his life torn apart due to his dad’s passing, but it also gives enough gravity to make his bond that he will come to have with Mr. Han that much more meaningful. Indeed from that point forward, the 2010 take on The Karate Kid operates with an integrity-laced tone that is very reverent to this film and to the original. Indeed this movie is not setting out to be better than the original, but rather give us a new interpretation of this narrative whilst also remembering of what is necessary for it to work on the level it should. In that respect, this film is able to be its own thing courtesy of the actors and the new locale this movie is set in. Indeed even though those intimately familiar of the original story will be able to easily recognize where these two stories are similar, it is those areas where this movie is similar in regards to narrative, construction, and intricacies in the plot never act as kryptonite to the overall film, but instead as vital reminders of why the original is so wonderful as well as items which strengthen just how crucial the themes that are so integral to both movies really are. Suffice it to say therefore that in the ways that matter this remake does make the original and all that it stood for quite proud.
Now even though Mr. Han’s way of teaching Dre was never going to be as iconic as wax on, wax off, this take on the property still manages to utilize the original’s method of utilizing highly unorthodox training methods as a way to show the main character, and us, that combat is not just about being able to hit harder than your opponent, but rather it is about training yourself on a psychological level as well. Indeed Miyagi and Han’s techniques are meant to showcase discipline of the mind and the body without continually giving way to violence as taught by either Cobra Kai or Master Li. Yet at the heart of the training in this take is Jackie Chan and of all the changes this remake made, I can safely say that Chan’s portrayal of what is, for all intents and purposes, a surrogate Miyagi character was one thing that audiences were the most curious about. To that end, it should be noted that Chan does an absolutely incredible job. Indeed he decides to give this character an aged look whilst talking in broken English and in a way that might remind you of Miyagi especially when taking into account how, like Miyagi, Chan’s character is able to bond with their student in a way that is not just teacher-apprentice, but on a more personal level as well that contributes a much needed sense of gravitas as well as strengthens what he is trying to teach about martial arts being about defense as much as offense and just as crucially as something meant to strengthen the soul and heart as well as the body. No Chan might not get the same level of recognition that Morita did, but his performance is still wonderful all the same.
Finally, it also doesn’t hurt that this slice of cinematic pie is operating with work done in the choreography and visual departments that might keyword might just top what was seen in the original. Indeed not once do you get the feeling that the actors pulled any punches as each and every moment of martial arts action in this feels genuine. Indeed it is that genuineness that helps contribute immensely to both how intense this film gets as well as making our main character a lot more sympathetic. Having said that, if there is one aspect where the original is leaps and bounds better than this it is in regards to how the movie approaches its antagonists. By that I mean the antagonists of the remake are never able to be quite as frightening or intimidating, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. That is because more than anything they are meant to just be a way for the narrative to be propelled forward in this. It is also worth noting that this film is aided immensely by a powerful musical accompaniment by the late yet great James Horner. Indeed Horner’s musical accompaniment merges Far East ingredients with a vibe that says bigger and emotional all while low-key providing tribute to the music from the original. Suffice it to say that the music in this manages to work quite wonderfully with the rest of the film. Finally, it is also worth pointing out that even though this film is an over 2 hour sit, it never feels tedious even once. Make no mistake: this is a lightning-quick, and wonderfully put-together film in nearly every single way that it is supposed to and then some.
All in all I’m not gonna lie: the 2010 take on The Karate Kid is one film that has proven itself to be quite divisive since its release. This is because there is one group who won’t like it because it’s a remake and then there is another group who won’t like it the changes made to both setting and characters. Oh and I almost forgot about the other group who will feel that since this is so alike to the original that there really is no need for this to exist. I mean in regards to the last group I will say that apparently the studio behind feels there’s still money that can be made off this iconic series of films (and internet series). Yet with this remake, those involved have decided to dust off a title that is as regarded as it is not just for its impact on the pop culture pantheon, but because of the lessons it has to offer those who watch it. To that end, whereas film helmer Harald Zwart’s take on this story is faithful to the same secondary ingredients, it is also faithful in showing a new generation the same lessons as the original and with just as much heart and just as much passion thus making this one remake that is not only fairly good, but worthy to be mentioned with a degree of pride as part of this iconic franchise. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Karate Kid “2010” a solid 3.5 out of 5.