Some films should never be remade. “Jaws” comes to mind, as do “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” “Die Hard” and many others. Until this updated version of 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” I might have added that film to the list too. And, yet, although director Harald Zwart remains extremely close to the original narrative, he still manages to create a film that, while undeniably familiar, is both unique and engaging.
Granted, if you’ve seen the original, the impact of this update might be slightly muted. Even so, the new “Karate Kid” has a respectable script, enhanced cinematography compared to the original and terrific martial-arts choreography. It also has a surprisingly strong, effectively nuanced lead performance from star-in-the-making Jaden Smith and an unexpectedly poignant supporting turn from Jackie Chan.
Smith steps into the role played by Ralph Macchio in 1984 as the awkward, transplanted “stranger in a strange land.” Whereas Machio’s Daniel Larusso was transplanted from New Jersey to California, Smith’s Dre Parker is transplanted from Detroit to Bejing. Dre’s culture shock is jolted to a whole other level when he’s quickly set upon by playground bullies.
Those bullies, led by a snarl-faced middle-schooler named Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), are incensed when Dre takes an interest a Chinese girl named Meiying (Wenwen Han). Incidentally, Dre’s romance with Meiying, though compulsory, strikes a perfect chord of adolescent angst, tinged with a touch of innocent sexuality. Kids, I suspect, will eat this stuff up — as will many adults.
Moreover, I don’t know where Zwart found Zhenwei Wang, but Cheng makes Johnny from the original film look like a choir boy. His level of menace, in fact, borders on cliché; that problem becomes especially noticeable when the character undergoes a near-180 transformation near the film’s conclusion.
Dre proves no match for Cheng, who’s as proficient in Kung Fu as he is deficient in fair play; Cheng’s gang makes the situation hopeless. Cheng has a thing for Meiying too, intensifying his hatred. Dre takes a handful of beatings from Cheng’s gang until one day, in the midst of the worst beat-down yet, Mr. Han (Chan), the unassuming maintenance man at Dre’s apartment building, intervenes and kicks some serious bully booty.
Han goes with Dre to confront Cheng’s gang at the dojo where they train. In the process, Han convinces Cheng’s sadistic sensei, Master Li (Rongguang Yu), to command his students to leave Dre alone. In return, Han agrees to enter Dre in the upcoming Kung Fu tournament; it’s there that—one by one; for better or worse — Dre will settle things with Cheng and his gang. Han, now feeling obligated, agrees to teach Dre “real Kung Fu” to prepare him for the tournament.
As per usual, Chan’s martial-arts skills are a marvel to watch — especially when he gives Cheng and his bullies their beat-down. Smith’s training and fight sequences are none too shabby either. In fact, this film’s fight choreography, combined with its breathtaking cinematography, are two aspects clearly superior to the original. During the tournament sequences, Zwart mostly avoids the confusing, herky-jerky, quick-cut camera work so popular in modern action films, giving things a clarity and immediacy lacking in many modern fight and stunt sequences.
It’s Chan’s emotional depth, though, that comes as one of “Kid’s” greatest, most surprising charms. I’ve frequently suspected there was more to Chan than we’ve previously witnessed; in a single, heart-wrenching scene dealing with Han’s grief over the death of his wife and son years earlier, Chan not only displays serious dramatic potential, but also briefly eclipses Pat Morita’s performance as Mr. Miyagi in the original — and Morita was nominated for a best-supporting-actor Oscar, no less. That scene also provides one of the film’s most poignant and emotionally-satisfying moments wherein student transforms into teacher, as Dre turns to his training to guide Han from despair and back to the path of “true Kung Fu.”
There are plenty of issues I could nitpick about “Kid,” but I liked it far more than I anticipated. For viewers unfamiliar with the original, it will, in all likelihood, even match the sheer power of that coming-of-ager. It’s certainly a crowd pleaser. My screening was packed and, as the film’s rousing — albeit hopelessly predictable — climax rolled around, the theater sounded, quite literally, like a crowed sports arena.
I don’t mean to make this film sound like it is one of 2010’s best. It isn’t, but it is one of its most emotionally satisfying. It is, too, that rare family film with edge, with enough emotional wallop to satisfy all viewers while offending almost no one. Doubtless, that emotional connection is why “Kid” has already surpassed expectations, soundly winning its opening box-office weekend; it’s also why “Kid” will probably endure at the local multiplex far longer than I predicted.
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