A remake of The Karate Kid is not only unnecessary, it’s probably not even a very good idea. The original — thrilling, gimmicky and almost totally satisfying — is a near classic that holds up just fine. Scrappy but vulnerable Ralph Macchio, gruff but gentle Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, sweetly winsome Elisabeth Shue and swaggering, intimidating William Zabka (Johnny) own their roles. Wax on, wax off. Sand the floor; paint the fence. Balance. Crane kick. Awesome. What could a remake add?
On the other hand, if we have to have a Karate Kid remake, then it is very necessary and a very good idea that the Pat Morita mentor role should go to Jackie Chan. With Jackie in the role, you know the training sessions are going to go way beyond the wax on-wax off routine. Plus, when Jackie scatters the bullies ganging up on the young hero at the end of the first act, he looks like he could actually do it, even if he is 56. No offense to the late, great Morita — a much better actor — but the blurry shot of him (or a body double) crouching atop a chain-link fence preparing to leap into a fray of teenage thugs isn’t one of the original’s more persuasive moments.
At the same time, Jackie brings a vulnerability that Morita’s Yoda-like Miyagi never had. As Mr. Han, the apartment building maintenance man with unexpected skills, Jackie looks invulnerable taking on a half dozen kung-fu fighting bullies — but then when he turns away, we see that he’s gasping for breath and trying not to show it. Later, confronting the brutal Master Li (Rongguang Yu) at the school where the bullies are drilled in mercilessness, Mr. Han winces as Master Li grips his hand in some sort of finger lock; you can believe that Han is afraid and unsure he could beat the younger man. Miyagi talked about being afraid before a fight, but he never seemed not in control at all times.
If you’re going to have Jackie, it’s not a bad idea to relocate the story to China. The hero, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), is again the new kid in town, but instead of moving west from New Jersey to California, Dre and his mother (earnest Taraji P. Henson) move east from Detroit to Beijing, where Mrs. Parker’s job has relocated. (The remake clarifies that Dre’s father has died; the absent father was unexplained in the original.) Photogenic locations in modern Beijing add visual interest, and excursions and training sessions involving the Forbidden City, the Wudang Mountains and the Great Wall add a picturesque aura of Kung Fu Panda antiquity.
Jaden is the son of Hollywood power couple Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, both producers on the film. Clearly, it’s a star vehicle for the young Smith, who is not yet 12. Accordingly, Dre’s peers, from bullying Cheng (Wang Zhenwei) and his posse to cute, young Meiying (the adorably named Han Wenwen), are also of grade-school rather than high-school age. In a faithful remake that follows the original just about beat for beat, one of the only missing scenes is the one where the teacher gives his student a car.
With younger actors in the main roles, the new Karate Kid puts something of a family-film spin on the original. Just as the original Karate Kid was a Rocky lite for teens, the remake is Rocky lite for tweens.
Some of the scenes of bullying are a bit more juvenile and less intensely frightening, and the attraction between Dre and Meiying is less romantic and more platonic (notwithstanding a brief, unconvincing kiss). (Both the original and the remake are rated PG, although the original would be an automatic PG-13 today due to a brief shot of bullying Johnny smoking marijuana in a men’s room stall. Ratings creep doesn’t always creep in the direction of increasing permissiveness.)
On the other hand, the martial-arts violence in the remake is both more stylized and more intense, and this is something of a problem. It’s one thing to watch a 16-year-old get beaten down to the ground till he can hardly stand; it’s another thing when it’s a tween. At the final tournament, Cheng and his brutal fellow students repeatedly engage in excessive roughness toward their opponents; the referees barely seem to have control of them. Maybe this sort of thing plays better in China, where there seems to be a different tolerance for subjecting children to grueling or even painful training regimens.
There’s another reminder of this in Meiying’s story arc. Meiying’s training is in violins rather than violence, and she’s preparing for a big audition to get into an elite music school or something of the sort. She’s under a lot of pressure, and her British tutor ramps it up further, reminding her how much her success would mean to her parents. I was reminded of a National Geographic documentary called China Circus: Elites about China’s intensive acrobat training programs for children. Harsh as this world is, gymnastics offers many Chinese children a chance at a better life not only for themselves but also their families. This made me wonder if Meiying’s parents were poor — but no, it turns out that like Ali’s parents in the original, they’re affluent.
Anyway, it’s nice that Meiying has a story arc and a big competition of her own, that she’s not just an appendage to Dre’s story. Mei and Dre pinky swear to cheer each other on at the other’s big event, and if Dre proves to be too free-spirited for Meiying’s parents, respect and reconciliation rather than rebellion or generational conflict are ultimately in the cards.
The movie is about kung fu, a Chinese term — not karate, which, like Mr. Miyagi, is from Okinawa. The Kung Fu Kid would have been an awesome title, but branding concerns won out, at least for the U.S. market. Wikipedia says, “In Chinese, kung fu can also be used in contexts completely unrelated to martial arts, and refers colloquially to any individual accomplishment or skill cultivated through long and hard work.” Actually, the term is used the same way in English: We speak colloquially of computer-programming kung fu, for instance. Mr. Han teaches Dre that kung fu is about excellence in all of life, from how we treat other people to how we take off and hang up a jacket. That’s pretty much what Jack Black’s panda protagonist taught his students in the Kung Fu Panda direct-to-video sequel Secrets of the Furious Five.
The kung fu of taking off and hanging up a jacket becomes a major motif in this Karate Kid, much like wax on, wax off in the original, except that here it also ties into how we treat other people, specifically to treating parents with respect rather than attitude. In one scene, Dre makes a sarcastic face at his mother as he tosses his jacket at the coat rack. It’s a move that will haunt him for a long time to come.
In a mustache and cap, walking with a shuffle, Jackie is persuasively withdrawn as a widower who lost his son as well as his wife in a tragic accident. Smith has presence, and, at times, one clearly sees his famous father in the boy’s expressions. Still, he’s very much a kid and can’t match the expressiveness of Macchio’s performance. Dre’s face doesn’t light up in Meiying’s presence, and when she reluctantly allows him to prod her into busting some moves on a dance machine — an unnecessarily provocative performance, scored to Lady Gaga — what should be Dre’s reaction shot (he’s supposed to be mildly stunned) is a nonreaction. Why didn’t director Harald Zwart tell him to open his eyes a little wider?
At times the remake sticks a little too close to its source material. Dre makes a friend who, like his counterpart in the original, disappears after a few scenes. And a climactic speech borrows the word “balance,” which meant something in the original that it doesn’t mean here.
Ultimately, though, the story still works, and it’s that strength that sustains the remake amid its various bright spots and shortcomings. This Karate Kid may not be competing at the same level as the original, but it respects the tradition, and if it doesn’t really have anything new to say, it still says it in a reasonably engaging way.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Intense martial-arts roughness and bullying; some crass language and cursing; brief reference to “chi” (life force); provocative dance performance. Might be okay for tweens.