Let’s get the harshness out of the way first. The opening scene of The Karate Kid shows a young Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) preparing to leave his apartment to head to China (yep, this is a Detroit to Beijing move rather than New Jersey to Southern California) with his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson).
The camera cuts to indentations on his bedroom wall where he’s clearly been charting his height, as well as key events in his life such as the death of his father. It should make you feel sorry for him, but it just made me dislike him.
For the first few minutes of the film, some may struggle with the idea that Smith is not just another obnoxious American child actor. His dialogue with the pal he’s leaving seems a bit overacted, and we started looking at our watch to lament just how much longer the torture would go on before the film finished. Not a good sign when you’re less than a few minutes in to a 140 minute (!) long film.
But then things change. Smith gets warmed up, and the audience is treated to flourishes of comedy, as well as the tale of an underdog. Dre practising his language skills on the plane only for the man to respond “Dude, I’m from Detroit,” helped warm my initial cold welcome for the film. Granted, some of the comedy is a bit obvious and predictable, but it still works well as a whole.
On moving to China, Dre’s new apartment is looked after by a handyman named Mr Han (Jackie Chan), whose character is a bit of a slow burner. This role is more serious than Chan’s usual roles, peppered with a bit of comedy, such as failing to catch a fly with chopsticks and being out of breath after seeing off a group of school heavies, and forms a great double act when coupled with Smith.
So, we’ve had laughs, frustrations and watch checking. What else is on offer?
The first fight scene, Dre’s real motivation for wanting to become a tough guy, is quite heart warming. Smith cuts a much more young looking and fragile figure than Macchio back in the day, and school bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) makes the audience feels every punch and kick, and we empathise with the Dre as he wipes away his tears. Indeed, the fight scenes are pretty harsh stuff in this film, full stop.
I’m a bit of a hard-faced cow sometimes, but I certainly had more empathy for Dre’s character at that point than I did back in 1984. Whether that makes it a better or more watchable film, however, is still questionable.
Herein lies the ever-present problem that has bothered remakes and sequels of years gone by, and will, no doubt, continue to plague them ad infinitum. If the original was filmed during an iconic time, such as the 80s, and had the spoils of great script writers and lack of reliance on special effects that modern day films have, complemented by a delectable 80s soundtrack, you’re a bit stuffed.
Try as they might (they being Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett Smith, who as well as co-producing with Ken Stovitz, Jerry Weintraub and James Lassiter are Jaden’s parents) by serving up great up-and-coming young actors and a sterling supporting cast, the choice of AC/DC’s Back In Black just doesn’t have the impact it should for the post-injury tournament comeback. Don’t get us wrong, we love the song, but it’s not a true match in this particular situation for Joe Esposito’s You’re The Best. And the two minutes Dre’s given to re-enter proceedings after being injured seems like a lifetime.
There’s a nod to the 80s, Back To The Future specifically, in the film, however, with Dre cadging a lift to his training by hanging onto the back of a car while on his skateboard.
Instead of wax on/wax off and paint the fence, we’re treated to training that focuses on dropping a jacket on the floor, picking it up again and hanging it up. But, of course, Han isn’t just teaching Dre manners. He’s teaching him combat skills. The coat tidiness does go down well with his mum though.
Against the backdrop of the tale of the kid who fought back against the bullies, you’ve got, as in the original,the love story between Dre and Mei Ying (Wenwen Han). Han plays the role well as a sweet, pretty young thing dedicated to her art as a violinist but, oppressed by her strict father and blighted by the fact she’s caught Cheng’s eye.
Smith and Han work well together, and there’s a few really cute moments in their will they/won’t they relationship, a particularly good moment being them having their first smooch behind the scenes at the shadow puppet show, only for Dre’s mum, Mr Han and everyone else in the audience to see it in all its giant-sized glory on the screen.
The plot is three-fold. We have the underdog, the love story and, lastly, the tale of loss and bonding. On first visiting Han’s house, Dre is surprised to see a car in his living room. Later, on returning to Han’s house to find him drunk and smashing up the car, Dre finds out the real story.
Han’s wife and child died in a car accident, so he rebuilds the car every year only to smash it up. Tears are shed and it’s implied that Han will be the father figure Dre no longer has, and that they will share a father/son-like bond from then on. Yes, it’s a bit cheesy, and try as we did, we couldn’t quite find it in us to believe Chan’s tears 100 percent, but we got the point.
Mr Miyagi and Daniel have been replaced by Han and Dre, but does this 2010 version replace the original in our hearts? In short, no. If you go into the cinema reminiscing about your childhood or ready to receive an updated, bottled version of the 80s classic, don’t. You’ll be sorely disappointed.
However, go in with an open mind, and lots of popcorn, and you might just be pleasantly surprised, leaving the cinema with a new take on Chan’s acting skills and a new favourite child actor. Jaden Smith is certainly one to watch in the future, and it’s his work and partnership with Chan that makes this film, rather than the big budget production, location or moniker.
Just one last warning, though. Whether you love or hate this film, one thing will unite cinema goers and that’s the frustration over the name. Dre learns kung fu, not karate.