Jaden charms the jaded – The Karate Kid review

The Karate Kid – Starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan and Taraji P. Henson. Directed by Harald Zwart. Rated PG. By Simon Miraudo.

Why do we become so attached to films? Why do even the most sensible movie watchers and film reviewers equate remakes of Fright Night and Footloose with sins of the highest degree? What is that indelible molecule that ties our fond memories of childhood to seemingly inconsequential movies about intrepid explorers, magic babies, or even karate kids? It’s called ‘nostalgia’, dummy (yes, I just called myself ‘dummy’). To quote Mad Men’s Don Draper (which I live to do), nostalgia can be translated to mean “the pain from an old wound”. Recently, a whole bunch of Gen X’s are enduring the pain of old wounds being reopened with the never-ending onslaught of 80s movie remakes.

The latest is Harald Zwart’s The Karate Kid, a beat-for-beat (no pun intended) do-over of John G. Avildson’s 1984 classic of the same name. Instead of a teenage Ralph Macchio learning to crane kick in Los Angeles, we have a tweenage Jaden Smith kicking the kung-fooey out of bullies in China. Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) has been replaced by Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a similarly disgruntled maintenance man with a surprising martial arts proficiency. Aside from that, the scenes from either movie might as well be interchangeable – something that will either give fans of the original some solace, or infuriate them further.

Having only watched the original Karate Kid recently (in preparation for the remake), I was surprised at how well it held up 26 years after release. Sure, it’s no work of genius. But it was a solid coming-of-age story that was genuinely inspiring, exciting and – thanks to the wonderful performances from Macchio and Morita – heartfelt. I was similarly surprised to find myself enjoying Zwart’s Karate Kid just as much, for many of the same reasons. This is no rush job. The Karate Kid 2010 is a thoughtful and professionally executed remake, retaining everything that really mattered about the original – specifically the sincere relationship between the young protégé and his mentor.

Young Dre (Smith) and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) head to Beijing after she is let go from her factory job in Detroit. Sadly, there is little commentary here on the state of industrial America in the face of the unstoppable Chinese production machine, but never mind. Dre struggles to fit in, and eventually finds himself the target of some particularly kung-fu capable bullies. After a particularly disastrous beat-down (the film is shockingly eager to show children kicking the living cheese out of one another), Dre is rescued by Mr. Han (Chan), who offers to educate him in the ways of true kung-fu and teach all those misguided menaces, as well as their unnecessarily evil master, a real lesson.

Yes, if you’ve seen the original, you know exactly how things are going to go down this time around. But I welcome this remake, which is easily one of the best, most wholly satisfying family films of late. Devoid of dumb humour, and unexpectedly soulful, The Karate Kid Redux is certain to become a favourite amongst youngsters in the same way as the original encouraged teenagers to sign up for martial arts lessons. Screenwriter Christopher Murphey and Zwart deserve much of the credit, but the film is truly elevated by the chemistry between the stars. Jaden Smith, an actor whom I once called “absolutely, unflinchingly, irredeemably terrible”, is rather charming here, and yes, a chip off the old block. Chan struggles valiantly in the shadow of Morita’s Miyagi, and although he forges a less-memorable character, he gets the job done. That being said, his one and only fight scene proves that there are fewer things more electrifying in cinema than watching a Jackie Chan action sequence.

It’s hard to say whether or not this Karate Kid is better than the original (although I suppose the mere act of comparison is compliment enough). This new version comes close to hitting the two-and-a-half hour mark, leading to the occasional eyeing of the exit. However, it expands upon many of the underdeveloped characters in the original, particularly that of the mother (played here wonderfully by the always-excellent Henson). The legendary “wax on, wax off” sequence is replaced here with the less catchy “take your jacket off, put your jacket back on”. THEN AGAIN, it does feature a more realistic version of oriental magic that can cure disastrous injuries. In the end, I guess both will likely be embraced by those who watched it while growing up. As a somewhat impartial observer – too young when the original came out, too old for the remake – let me state that both are immensely enjoyable, and perhaps the latter is even good enough to justify all future 80s remakes. Except Labyrinth. No need to bring David Bowie’s tight pants back any time soon.

3.5/5

P.S. Despite being called The Karate Kid, this is purely a kung-fu film. Do not assume that the entire movie is as culturally insensitive as its title.

The Karate Kid opens in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania July 1st. It expands to New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia July 8th.

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

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