Save for Gus Van Sant’s extremely literal Psycho remake, 2010’s version of The Karate Kid is about as close as I’ve seen to a completely straightforward redo of a film that really never asked to be redone in the first place. The 1984 original is available to watch instantly on Netflix, and having recently done so, I’m pleased to say that the classic I remember from my youth still holds up quite well. If you recall that movie—hopefully fondly, as I do—you’ll recognize not only several sequences of scene-by-scene reconstruction here, but also a lot of line-by-line dialogue as well. This only serves to amplify my stock questions I ask when encountering one of these: what’s the aim in remaking it? What new is being brought to the table? And while I don’t have a positive response to the second question, at least in this case the answer to the first is quite obvious: Jaden Smith is a prince in Hollywood, and his parents have more money than the Pope, so they bought their son a cute little movie franchise of his very own.
The good news is that young Jaden is every bit as talented and as likable as his father. He’s a terrific young actor, who I recall as one of the highlights of the Day the Earth Stood Still remake—hopefully remakes don’t become a long-term pattern for him, though. He’s cute and lovable and charming here, and shows that at the tender age of 11 he’s already able to carry a movie on his own (not to mention that he appears to actually know a thing or two about whatever kind of martial art is being depicted in this film—more about that in a bit). He’s partnered here by the equally likable Jackie Chan, who doesn’t play Mr. Miyagi so much as he plays an old and gruff version of Jackie Chan, who happens to be named Mr. Han. The two meet in the exact same manner as Daniel-san and Miyagi: Smith’s character (Dre) moves with his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) into an apartment complex where Han is the maintenance man. Instead of relocating from New Jersey to Los Angeles, though, this transition is a much larger one: the mother has been transfered by the car factory she worked at in Detroit to their location in China. It’s an attempt to add some topicality to the movie, I suppose, but does that actually happen? It seems to me that the purpose of moving operations to China (saving money on labor) is pretty much offset if you have to pay to relocate American employees there.
At any rate, there’s really no sense in summarizing the plot, because it’s exactly the same as the original movie, with but a few key differences. First is that since this film takes place in China, it’s actually kung fu that “Xiao Dre” learns; I’m certainly not claiming to be an expert on such matters, but I’m pretty sure calling this movie The Karate Kid is like making a movie about a guy who wears kilts and plays bagpipes and calling it The Irishman. (The working title, as I recall, was actually The Kung Fu Kid, which would be more appropriate, but I guess it was decided that its heritage should be made more apparent—as if word-for-word and scene-by-scene reconstruction weren’t sufficient enough.)
So what else is changed from the original film? Very little. The paint-the-fence / wax-the-car / paint-the-house / sand-the-deck training is collapsed into a single routine: hang up a jacket, put it on, set it on the floor, and pick it up again. This is actually a bit welcome, as we know what’s going on (assuming we’ve seen the previous Karate Kid), so there’s no point in dragging things out, as the joke’s already ruined before it’s even been set up. Mr. Han, also, doesn’t have quite as well-told a backstory as Miyagi did, though Chan does get a chance to deliver his own take on the drunken-breakdown scene, and he does so admirably.
The one aspect that’s really different about this movie, however, is the most glaring issue I have with it: here the protagonist is not a high school kid, dealing with bullies who are testosterone-fueled pubescent boys, and falling for a just-blossoming Elisabeth Shue. Instead, he’s a young pre-teen, and this taints nearly every plot point in the movie. The rival kids who train under a ruthless master are now about 12 years old, making both their training and their attitudes much more disturbing. When Han saves Dre from an attack, it’s a 50-something man beating up on children, not punk-ass teenagers. And when Dre develops a love interest, played by young Wen Wen Han (whose existence IMDB appears not to acknowledge), it has a totally different slant because it’s just puppy love, without all of the complications and standard issues we’re used to seeing in teenage romances. I try not to think in these terms too often, but it’s pretty obvious that this is a movie aimed at children, and that too makes me wonder about the appropriateness of it all, even beyond my normal knee-jerk rejection of remakes. And so despite my positive opinion of Jaden Smith, and the fact that I’ll look forward to his future roles, I think this one was given to him about 5 years too soon. The movie suffers as a result, not only in content but in its potential influence on young film-goers.
I can’t think of many reasons that could be given for remaking any film, as I’ve mentioned countless times before, but it seems to me that if you’re going to embark on such an endeavor, you should at least have as your intention some sort of improvement on the original. I don’t think that’s really the case in any regard with this new Karate Kid, and so I can’t say I really see any reason for its existence—aside from the usual one, of course. Oh, and there is one other thing: this one features a K’naan song, an artist I really enjoy. Best that, Joe “Bean” Esposito.