Directed By Harald Zwart
Starring Jackie Chan, Jaden Smith, Taraji P. Hensen, Wen Wen Han, Zhenwei Wang, Michelle Yeoh
Screenplay adapted by Christopher Murphey from the original Robert Mark Kamen script
Jaden Smith is a star who has nowhere to go but up. Jackie Chan is a star who’s been up so long, it’s easy to just think of him as part of the background. Chan understands this perhaps as well as anyone. He’s been around now almost as long as John Wayne and his time in the limelight has been glorious. A true leading man, in the sense that he is so comfortable in his skin, it is okay to let others shine for the improvement of the work. If his cast does not look good, then it does not matter how good he looks. This is how the Shanghai Noon and Knights saga worked so well as well as the Rush Hour films. He makes his adversaries look good and makes his victories almost seem like luck. Anyone who has seen his box office receipts worldwide knows that it ain’t luck.
When I heard they were remaking the movie with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s little boy, I thought that it was probably doable, but as usual, unnecessary. With Jackie Chan in the midst, it was a complete irony. The first movie dealt with Karate and the teacher was someone (Pat Morita) from Okinawa Japan, where, Chan from Hong Kong, China uses Kung Fu. So, to reflect this, they called the movie The Kung Fu Kid in China, Japan and South Korea. And, for marketing reasons, they called it Karate Kid everywhere else. Oh well, what we never learn can’t hurt us, I guess.
This is just digression, however, and it cuts the film short. Like I said before, Smith has great chops. Normally kids in film annoy the crap out of me. They are either supernaturally gifted while surrounded by idiot adults (my brother calls them Disney parents) or they have fears that outweigh reality but are saved by that one great thing they can do. Smith does not conform to these rigid standards. His natural athletic skill for an 11-year-old is astounding, but he gets pounded early and often and in the end, he does not win in an unrealistic way.
Smith’s reactions have a natural grace that allow other, not so great performances (Hensen, Wang), to flow like whiskey down the gullet. His chemistry with love interest (Wen Wen Han) seems natural and somewhat innocent, until they both, inexplicably, kiss like pros, throwing off the beauty of the scene. On the one hand, you might expect someone named Dre to be able to pull off Lothario at an early age, but it sure doesn’t mean you want to see it. Outside of that, though, the romance is sweet and honorable.
Which brings us to the fighting. For a kid who is supposed to be 12, it is somewhat disconcerting to witness the beatings laid down upon him by the bully kids who all are at least 2 years older. This is leveraged by Chan’s first and only encounter with the mob of kids. His fight with them is essentially Chan allowing the kids to beat themselves up. Very good and humorous scene.
The training is well paced and varied enough to allow the other parts of the movie progress. Anyone who has seen the first movie knows the routine, but it is varied in that instead of the iconic “wax on / wax off” scene, we have him working with his jacket and a coat rack. There is a beautiful pair of scenes, one in the Wudang Mountains involving Michelle Yeoh in an uncredited appearance with a King Cobra, and the customary, but also beautiful scene at the Great Wall of China.
Does the movie stack up to the earlier Karate Kid? Yeah it does, quite well. In fact it may even be better.
- Teacher – Even: Chan, even in a reserved role, shows that he can act the part of stoic, peaceful teacher. His experience helps to make Smith’s situation more of a legitimate circumstance. I would put him on par with Morita.
- Bad guys – Advantage original: Unfortunately, the language gap limits the character potential of his nemeses, but the bad guys in the original were classic ’80’s cheese which would have been hard to top.
- Mothers – Even: Both mother characters (this and original) are idiots by necessity, as rational adults would help a kid terrorized by a group of kung fu experts find, oh, I don’t know, the police.
- Love interest – Even: Elisabeth Shue is an icon of ’80’s cinema and was very much on every teen boy’s mind, but Han works well with Smith.
- Torment scenes – Advantage original: It is not so much fun to watch an eleven year old, even a remarkably athletically gifted one like Smith, get beaten thoroughly by several, bigger, kids.
- Saving scene – Advantage remake: It’s the only time we see Chan in action and he lets the others shine by kicking their own butts.
- Training sequence – Even: Wax on / wax off is hard to beat, but the coat moves, along with the great visuals move the remake to a tie.
- Tournament – Even: The original is a classic, but my God, Jaden Smith is a remarkable athlete.
- Karate Kid – Advantage remake: Smith is, ironically, head and shoulders over Macchio in athletic as well as acting skill. Jaden is going to be big, perhaps bigger than his dad. Catch on while the getting is good.
In essence, the limitations of the first, are the limitations to the remake, with the noted exceptions. I think this movie, for the most part would be a great early evening flick for any kid 10 and up. Any younger, and you better make sure you explain what they are seeing.
(***1/2 out of *****)