Of all the films in the world why remake The Karate Kid? The 1984 picture was a perfect blend of teen angst, charming innocence and fist pumping theatrics, a confection that no retread could ever hope to better. This Harald Zwart headed retool is happy to oblige low expectations, providing a version of the story that’s inferior in just about everyway. The film concludes on a minor note of promise, but largely represents an overstretched yet oddly undercooked tale, relocating the action to China but leaving all the greatness of the 1984 movie behind. The change of locale is about the only major difference, Zwart apparently hoping that the fresh landscape and the addition of some mystical hoo-ha will prevent audiences from detecting the facelift form of filmmaking he shamelessly deploys. Well he didn’t fool me.
12 year-old Dre (Jaden Smith) and his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) have moved to China from Detroit, spurred on by a job opportunity and a desire for a new life. Sherry is excited about the change, but Dre isn’t, something only compounded when he becomes a regular punch bag for a group of local bullies. The homesick and bruised Dre becomes of interest to local handyman Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), who after rescuing Dre from a showdown with his assailants, offers to train the boy in the art of Kung-Fu. Dre excitedly accepts, entering into a tournament so he might face his aggressors in an honourable and official capacity. Han begins to tutor the boy using some very unorthodox techniques, but eventually friendship blooms, something that comforts Dre as the vital Kung-Fu competition approaches.
The chemistry and relationship between mentor and pupil was a great strength of the original film. Ralph Macchio and the late Pat Morita made a fabulous double act, and really made their relationship feel organic throughout that picture. The same cannot be said for Smith and Chan. The latter provides a fairly bland performance, one that is only comfortable in the realms of combat and occasional instances of light comic relief. Chan’s interpretation of Han has no pathos or depth, something that was so abundant in Morita’s legendary Mr. Miyagi. Jaden Smith is less obnoxious than expected (I still have nightmares concerning his abysmal acting in The Day the Earth Stood Still) but he can’t find the lively and lovable sense of underdog enthusiasm that Ralph Macchio once blissfully tapped into. Much like Chan it’s a case of the performance being dull rather than terrible, but two boring performances do not make for good chemistry. As a pair Chan and Smith are lifeless and their arc feels rushed and underdeveloped thanks to the uninspired screenplay, the filmmakers finding more value in the training montages than any proper onscreen connection. It’s a fatal flaw in a plot that is wholly dependent on these two key players.
The film is atrociously paced, Zwart’s remake clocking in at an unwelcome 140 minutes. The script also brings little new to the story, basically taking the original screenplay and lifting massive chunks straight out of it. Dre gets a romantic interest (nowhere near as engaging or lovable as that portrayed in the original film) and Mr. Han has a dark past (possibly the worst attempt at this film mirroring its source) marking this production out as a case of cinematic déjà vu, and what you saw beforehand was of a far higher quality. Aside from a few minor variations (“Wax on, wax off” is now “Jacket on, Jacket off”) the only genuine difference between this film and its eighties counterpart is an expansion on the relationship between mother and son. Taraji P. Henson easily gives the movie’s most assured performance as Dre’s conflicted parent, an arc that is almost worth the runtime it eats up. Still a minor triumph such as that can’t begin to compensate for the other more damaging flaws, and so the project remains a firm misfire.
The Chinese scenery is nicely photographed, and the Kung-Fu sequences are carried out with an admirable degree of technical and athletic competency. The tournament based conclusion is one of the movie’s best segments, and despite the unsatisfactory nature of what precedes it the final moments still solicit a minor cheer. On the whole however, The Karate Kid is a pointless and utterly unwanted motion picture, a mild insult to the brilliant property on which it’s based. Maybe a new and undemanding generation of film goers will take this remake to heart, but if you’ve ever experienced Miyagi, Daniel San or the Crane kick, this replica will never be good enough
DIRECTOR: HAROLD ZWART
CAST: JADEN SMITH, JACKIE CHAN, TARAJI P. HENSON
RUN TIME: 140 MIN