Screen Rant's Vic Holtreman reviews The Karate Kid
What's going on here? Two movies released in one weekend that are remakes of beloved source material from the 80s (there's this and The A-Team)? Well The A-Team passed the test and now it's time to see whether this reincarnation of the original Karate Kid which starred Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita way back in 1984 measures up.
With this film we've had yet another case of "don't ruin my childhood" screams from denizens of the internet. While like many of you, I have my favorites that I believe should NEVER be touched in an attempt to milk some cash from a familiar name (please, God, don't let that Casablanca remake on the drawing board EVER see the light of day), I've come to learn in my advancing years that some films and TV shows from our past are not quite as great as we remember them to be.
However the original Karate Kid does NOT fall into the "nostalgia-good" category: It is definitely as good as you remember it - so the question (for me, anyway) is whether this new film passes the test of "worthy" remake and whether it stands on its own, even judged apart from the original (which is actually the more important question).
In this reincarnation of the film we have Jackie Chan playing the teacher (Mr. Han) and Jaden Smith playing the bullied new kid in town (Dre Parker). In this case the town is Beijing, where he and his mother have moved after the automobile factory she worked for in Detroit closed down. Apparently Dre's mom was transferred from Detroit to China by the company (a situation that strained credulity if you ask me). She's upbeat about pretty much everything, much like the mom in the original film, much to Dre's chagrin.
Upon arriving he gets a crush on a local girl called Meiying (played by Wenwen Han), who is training to become a violinist and hopes to enter the prestigious Beijing Music Academy. In this version the bully is an overprotective friend of the family instead of an ex-boyfriend, and it doesn't take too long into the movie until the initial beatdown happens.
We go through similar motions that we've seen in the original film, with Dre having to avoid the bully and his gang, although in this version they emphasize Dre's fear of the bullies more than they did in the original. In a bit of adolescent revenge Dre dumps some sort of liquid on the bully and is chased and cornered by half a dozen who are beating him badly when Mr. Han comes to the rescue. The scene where Jackie Chan fends off half a dozen young kung-fu bullies is pretty amusing. Also here his character is shown to be not quite as seemingly invincible as Pat Morita's character came across.
You know how the story will go: Mr. Han tries to reason with the evil kung-fu school teacher, reluctantly takes on Dre as a student, has Dre perform seemingly meaningless tasks for thousands of repetitions, this turns into martial arts training and we eventually end up at the big martial arts tournament.
And do they explain why they called the film The KARATE Kid instead of The KUNG FU Kid? Barely. There's a throwaway sentence by Jaden about 30 minutes in that's certainly not enough to justify it. They just named it that to tie it to the original, and in my opinion they could have done that with the latter (and initial) title. Bad marketing move if you ask me.
Director Harold Zwart doesn't exactly have a high brow film pedigree (Agent Cody Banks, Pink Panther 2) and here he does an adequate job. It's nothing spectacular but it's not terrible, either. Sure, there were some beautiful shots of Beijing, China's mountains and wooded areas, but I'd have to say to me it felt almost more like a made for TV movie than anything else. While Will Smith's son Jaden is an OK little actor, he's not yet ready to carry an entire film. There just wasn't as much heart in the thing as they were shooting for. One thing I did get a kick out of though was where in a couple of scenes Jaden was definitely channeling his dad's mannerisms. On the other hand some of the emphasis on how buff he was with a few shirtless scenes struck me as a bit... weird (considering he was just 11 when this was filmed). Similarly, I found a scene in which the young lady he had a crush on danced fairly provocatively (for a 12 year old) to be too much considering her age.
Besides following the overall plot of the original very closely, there were several nods to that film that were nice to see - and I thought the replacement for "wax on, wax off" wasn't bad.
It takes a while to warm up to the characters - too long, really, but once it gets down to the final 30 minutes or so the film improves quite a bit. It was quite cute in a few places and the scene where Dre finds out the source of Mr. Han's solemn disposition was really quite touching. And speaking of Jackie Chan, I thought he was quite good in this role - a fitting one for an aging martial arts movie master such as himself.
Overall, I'd just call this a fresh take on the original - it's not as good (even with the first film's 80s music throughout), but it's not a horrible stain on the memory of that film either. My score is maybe a bit generous than it might be (half a star) because I'm concerned I might be comparing it to the original (which I saw the night before I saw this one) too much. However I think audiences will like this film, especially the young 'uns who've never seen the 1984 version and won't know ahead of time how the story unfolds. It's rated PG so it's OK for kids, although some of the very young ones might not like seeing Dre get beaten up pretty badly.
So, sure, go check out this version of The Karate Kid - but afterward find some time to rent the original or find it on TV if you or your kids have never seen it. You can thank me later. :)
Finally, here's another look at the trailer for the film to help you decide.