Also in Slate: John Swansburg assesses the surprisingly nuanced villains of the original Karate Kid.
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Hanging over any remake, but especially over the remake of a classic, is the question "Why?" Sometimes that syllable is muttered with a shrug of resignation ("The Wicker Man with Nic Cage? Why?"). Sometimes it's bellowed to the uncaring heavens in agony ("Last Tango in Paris with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes? WHYYY?").
The notion of remaking The Karate Kid (Sony Pictures) elicits a "why?" of midlevel outrage. The 1984 original, in which Noriyuki "Pat" Morita coaches bullied teenager Ralph Macchio to victory in a karate championship, may have seemed like a standard-issue inspirational sports picture at the time, but (as with another box-office hit of the same year, The Terminator) a generation of remove reveals what a well-crafted movie it actually was. Rewatched today, the original Kid, directed by Rocky's John G. Avildsen, feels smart and fresh, with a wealth of small character details and a leisurely middle section that explores the boy's developing respect for his teacher.
The first job of the new Karate Kid, then, was to not defile the spirit of the original—at that task this version succeeds almost too well. The script, by Christopher Murphey, reproduces the story of the earlier film beat for beat, and, at times, line for line. It's respectful to the point of reverence, an odd stance to take toward a film that was fun in the first place because of its unpretentious pop schlockiness. To the credit of both Murphey and director Harald Zwart, that unhurried middle act remains intact—instead of using the nearly 2 ½-hour running time to cram in extra fight scenes, they give the mentor/student relationship at the movie's heart time to unfold. While the fight scenes have been (literally) punched up by the inclusion of more spectacular martial-arts stunts—along with the bonecrunching sound effect now required to accompany all onscreen fisticuffs—this Karate Kid isn't the rushed, coarsened, CGI-infested ripoff that fans of the original may be dreading. It's as sweet-natured a movie as you could expect about a 12-year-old learning to beat the crap out of his schoolmates.
One of the few big changes here, in fact, is the lowering of the protagonist's age. This karate kid, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is truly a kid, rather than the 15-year-old high-schooler of the original. It's easy to see why the change was made—teenage viewers, more jaded now than they were in '84, would go out of their way to avoid identifying with the naiveté of a character like Macchio's virginal, knock-kneed Daniel-san. Youthening the hero is also a way to draw younger kids and families into the film's target demographic. It would be hard to sell a "teen movie" without at least a little sex, but Dre Parker can have a PG-rated romance that culminates in a chaste peck. The problem is that rethinking Dre and his oppressors as preteens places the audience in the uncomfortable position of rooting for harm to be visited on children, most notably on a cherubic-faced bully named Cheng (Wang Zhenwei), who pounds Dre to a pulp on the playground in an early scene.
The second big change this Kid makes is to swap SoCal for China. Where the original had Macchio and his single mother moving from New Jersey to Los Angeles, the opening credits of the remake show Dre and his single mother (a tartly funny Taraji P. Henson) relocating from Detroit to Beijing (where the movie was filmed on location) after her auto-industry job forces her to change continents. Dre is miserable in their new life: He has no friends, can't speak a word of Chinese, and can't seem to turn a corner without being waylaid by Cheng and his glowering minions. The one bright spot is his crush on a cute violin prodigy, Meiying (Han Wen Wen), but her parents are none too happy about her blowing off practice time to hit the gaming arcade with an American boy.
One afternoon after school, Dre is cornered by Cheng and his toughs in an alley. They're about to give him the whaling of a lifetime when Dre sees his building's taciturn handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) enter the fray and, using some tricky comic kung fu, defeat the boys without directly laying a hand on any of them (rather, he uses them as props to beat up each other). Han is unforthcoming about the origin and extent of his martial-arts prowess, but gradually he lets himself get talked into training Dre for a kung fu tournament that will also be attended by Cheng & Co. (Calling this movie The Karate Kid, as if all martial arts were interchangeable, seems like a transparent grab for brand recognition, since the only sport we see practiced is kung fu. The distinction is lost on me, but will obviously mean a lot to the film's global audience.)
What The Karate Kid lacks in originality, it makes up for in execution—well, maybe not quite, but there are many pleasures along the way, including a satisfying running joke about Dre's refusal to hang up his jacket when he gets home from school. Jaden Smith, the 11-year-old son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, is lithe, compact, impressively athletic, and full of self-confidence, just the opposite of the gawky, shambling Macchio. As a performer, Smith is a bit of a show pony, with his father's habit of deploying charm as a defense. But just like Will, this even-fresher prince gets away with it 90 percent of the time. As for Chan, his economy of gesture becomes more impressive with every role. In this film, he fights once, cries once, speaks very little, and smiles not at all. And yet, improbably, this impassive man provides the film's emotional center. His grave expression suggests such untold depths that a backstory seems almost unnecessary, though his character is provided with one midway through the film.
The Karate Kid has its problems. Its fight scenes, while free of visible gore, are disproportionately violent for the age group they're aimed at. The film's view of the assimilation process errs on the side of rosiness: Dre manages to get by without ever learning Chinese, and any problems he might have faced as a specifically African-American child in China are glossed over quickly. But when you look at the movies being released for and about children, so many of which manage to combine inappropriately adult content with a babyish condescension toward their viewers, The Karate Kid starts to look pretty good. If I had a child near Dre's age, I'd drag him or her out of Marmaduke and into The Karate Kid—but not before requiring an at-home screening of the still unsurpassed original.