Monday, June 14, 2010

Movie Review: The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid ***
Directed by:
Harald Zwart.
Written By: Christopher Murphey based on the movie written by Robert Mark Kamen.
Starring: Jaden Smith (Dre Parker), Jackie Chan (Mr. Han), Taraji P. Henson (Sherry Parker), Wenwen Han (Meiying), Rongguang Yu (Master Li), Zhenwei Wang (Cheng), Shijia Lü (Liang), Yi Zhao (Zhuang), Bo Zhang (Song), Luke Carberry (Harry), Cameron Hillman (Mark), Ghye Samuel Brown (Oz), Rocky Shi (Ur Dang), Ji Wang (Mrs. Po).

The Karate Kid wasn’t really a very original idea back when the first movie was made in 1984. It was your classic underdog sports story – with a bullied kid at a new school being picked on, before an old coach, with issues of his own, takes him on and trains him to be the best at karate – culminating in an epic fight scene at a tournament where the kid goes against his most aggressive tormentor. Pretty standard stuff really, but it captured the public’s imagination enough to warrant three sequels before the formula seemed to be played out. The original is still a childhood favorite of mine, that continues to captivate me while I’m channel surfing. The new remake of the film is not as good as the original – but perhaps that’s only because now I am an adult as opposed to the kid I was when I saw the original. This is a well made movie that follows the formula of the original to be sure, but is still quite entertaining from beginning to end.

Instead of a kid from New Jersey heading out to California, this time we have a kid from Detroit who heads to China. Dre (Jaden Smith) is being forced to leave his entire world behind him because his mother (Tarij P. Hensen) has seen her job at a car company move from Detroit to China, and has decided to follow it. Given the number of white kids we see at his new school, she isn’t the only one who decided to make the move. Dre can only speak a few words of “Chinese” (the movie never points out that there is no Chinese language – it’s either Cantonese or Mandarin, and I assume that where they are, it would be Mandarin), and has no friends to fall back on. His first day in China, he runs afoul of Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) on the playground by flirting with the pretty Meiying (Wenwen Han), and gets beat up rather soundly by him and his posse. This torment continues at school, until eventually they chase Dre home and seem to have him surrounded. That is when Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the quiet handyman at the apartment where Dre and his mother live, steps in, and fights them all off – never really hitting the kids themselves, but making them hit themselves and each other. Mr. Han agrees to go to Cheng’s kung fu teacher, Master Li, and see if he can reason with him – when that proves useless, he agrees to train Dre for the upcoming Kung Fu tournament. Instead of Master Li’s philiosophy of No Weakness, No Pain, No Mercy, Mr. Han teaches Dre real Kung Fu – and how it is more about respect than violence.

The movie is well made, well acted and entertaining from start to finish. Although what Dre is learning is Kung Fu and not Karate (which means the film should be titled The Kung Fu Kid, but then they wouldn’t get the benefit of the familiar name), the movie has a little fun with this, making Dre’s mother not understand the difference, and refer to him learning Karate, despite the fact that he points out the difference. Jaden Smith, who is the son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, certainly has his father’s screen presence, charm and humor. He may not be the best child actor in the world, but for this type of role he is just about perfect – and he carries much of the film on his back. Jackie Chan has the more difficult role, as he has to fill the shoes of Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who was so good as Mr. Miyagi that he received an Oscar nomination. But Chan wisely decides not to channel Morita, but make his Mr. Han a slightly different character – not quite as old, and perhaps not quite as kind, but just as wise and caring as Morita. The film also wisely decides not to take too many of the iconic phrases from the original film (there is no “Wax on, wax off”, which instead becomes “Jacket On, Jacket Off”, although I think the filmmakers are winking at knowing audiences when we see Chan waxing his old car several times). Hensen is good in the role of Dre’s mother, but once again, I wonder if directors just do not know how to use her properly. She is actress of skill and sex appeal that is constantly underused in mainstream films. The rest of the cast – in particular Wenwen Han who is quite good as Dre’s “girlfriend” do the jobs they were hired to do quite well.

Watching the new Karate Kid, it was impossible not to compare to the old one. But while I still prefer the old one – and probably would have no matter how good this version turned out to be – I have to say that this is a fine film in its own right. I do hope that kids how enjoy this movie seek out the original, and see just how great it really was, but even if they don’t, they will experience a fine family fine – and that’s a rare quality these days.

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