The Karate Kid
There were more than a few groans when the first preview for this new incarnation of THE KARATE KID came out starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. So I watched the old one again from 1984 with Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita to remind myself what I liked about it. I gotta tell ya, I think maybe we gave the old boy a little more credit than it deserved. Ralph Macchio was a whiny punk on par with Mark Hamill in the first STAR WARS flick and I kept waiting for Mr. Miyagi to pitch milkshakes a la “Happy Days.” In fact, the best part about it was William Zabka as the evil Johnny Lawrence – but that guy’s just a likeable actor. And that was helmed by John G. Avildsen, the director of ROCKY, so when this new flick has Harald Swart directing, last seen directing PINK PANTHER 2, the groans were warranted. But I watched this movie and I was truly impressed, and the rest of the audience was as well, with audible cheers, laughter and sniffles at some points in the movie. This movie does better than the original in its likeable characters, its grander themes of displacement for the protagonist, and a finale that actually makes you want to, as the cliché goes, get up and cheer. And that’s with already knowing how it’s going to end.
The movie begins in Detroit with Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) moving to China, where she has been transferred with her car company. His first day there he meets a girl, a violinist, in his local park and wins her over with his hair that she asks to touch (I’m not sure if that’s offensive or not). Her other suitor, an angry looking Chinese kid named Cheng (Wang Zhenwei), makes his displeasure at the new kid known by beating him up to the applause of his friends. His buildings maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), overhears his problems with his new environment in arguments with his mother and then saves him from the school bullies, Miyagi-style. The bullies are all students of the Fighting Dragons under the sadistic tutelage of Master Li (Yu Rongguang Yu), and the only way Master Li will allow them to let up on his “No Mercy” rule is for Dre to challenge them all in a tournament. Cue the training montage in amazing venues around China. Mr. Han keeps to his maintenance duties and does not teach kung fu due to an inability to overcome a tragedy in his past which Dre finds out through a touching moment in the story which does not feel like an aside and leads well into another, more intense training montage. The tournament itself has easy enough rules to follow, limited subtitles throughout, and the tension still builds to that climactic last point for our hero. Is there a crane kick? Does it go back to that KARATE KID staple? I’ll never tell.
The cinematographer, Roger Pratt, does great things with the Chinese venues at their disposal, another benefit this film has over the original, and the script by Christopher Murphey makes us care more about our lead actors than the original ever did. Taraji P. Henson makes us feel the exasperation and support of a single mother trying to do what’s best for her child. There is a nice aside of cross-cultural romance between the young violinist and Dre that maybe doesn’t equate to Elisabeth Shue, but these are younger kids and its played for sweetness that comes off well. Jackie Chan showcases his kung fu stylings minimally, not wishing to take over the film, but his emotional scene is played with tenderness and his training methods do not mirror the “wax on, wax off” style from 1984, but the lessons of kung fu and its other applications are taught with care and limited cheesiness. Yes, this movie hardly ever says “karate,” this is about kung fu, and I’m sure we’ll all have no problem with that distinction, we just want to see people getting kicked in the face. Jaden Smith gets to do that a bit, and does it well. But that’s not all he does. Jaden, the son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, has his father’s affability and uses that to make us care about his acclimation into Chinese society. We like this kid and if he keeps it up, we may watch him grow into a megastar on par with his father.