Nostalgia can be a tricky and deceptive thing sometimes.  When viewed through the lens of adulthood many of the people, places and things you cherished as a child can shrink and diminish.  For this reviewer, that’s exactly what happens when revisiting John G. Avildsen’s ‘The Karate Kid’. Although the central story still retains its appeal, it feels dated and a bit ham-handed. It comes as a welcome surprise then,  that this new ‘Karate Kid’, while featuring precious little karate, honors all that was right with its predecessor and actually improves the rest. The result is this summer’s best big budget offering so far.

Written by: Bartleby

The Karate Kid, 2010, (PG),  145 min. Directed by: Harald Zwart, Written by: Christopher Murphey, Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Rongguang Yu Original Music by: James Horner Cinematography: Roger Pratt

Ninja rating:

Back in 1984, watching the patient and monk-like Mr. Miyagi teaching gawky  teen Daniel the art of karate and the meaning of discipline was like a revelation. It was an empowerment fable with a strong, appealing figure at its core in Morita’s wise and skilled Miyagi, and Macchio was hapless enough that one couldn’t help but root for his transformation into a capable warrior. But dear lord, is the rest of it clunky! From Martin Kove’s sneering, campy rendition of the film’s villain to the cookie cutter romance with Shue’s Ali, Karate Kid feels like a butterfly stuck halfway in the cocoon. Even the karate sequences themselves stand out now as being less well choregraphed and visually interesting than I remember.

 Still, when this remake was announced I was in no way convinced it was necessary. The Karate Kid, like The Goonies, was so specifically a creature of the 80’s that it didn’t even make sense to remake it. When the decision came down to cast a much younger kid in the Macchio role (Jaden Smith) and to turn Miyagi over to Jackie Chan, I wrote it off as an ill planned remake. Thankfully, I get to be wrong this time. Although it trades out karate for kung-fu (and this makes sense for a more modern version) The Karate Kid 2010 is an improvement over the first film in almost every way, and most startling is that applies to Chan’s take on the mentor too.

The first smart change the new picture makes is transplanting the central story from California to China, where young Dre Parker (Smith) moves with his harried single mother (Taraji P. Henson).  Visually, this gives the film its own distinct look that seperates it from the mall culture of the original. The cinematography is breathtaking,giving the whole endeavor an atmosphere that matches the story’s themes of dedication and self-discovery. Its one thing for Daniel to learn karate with Miyagi on the beach, but another entirelyfor Dre and Mr. Han to train right near the temples where the art form originated.

 Although the movie’s depiction of China is about as surface level as a travelogue would be, Karate Kid isn’t out to make a statement about the country and culture but to tell a well-oiled underdog story that revolves around the relationship of the two central characters.

And, above all else, The Karate Kid nails that relationship.

Let’s start with the place where most of the credit deserves to go; Jackie Chan’s Mr. Han. Virtually a parody of himself here in the states, Chan has goofed his way through some terrifically wretched family films in past years, the recent Spy Next Door being a perfect example.  Part of this is American filmmakers never knowing exactly what to do with him. In his homeland, Chan was allowed to be a performer first, and acting, if it happened, was only secondary to his enormous skill and boundless energy. He had the rabid comic intensity of an early Robin Williams and the graceful, dancer’s elegance of an Astaire or Kelly. 

What’s surprising here is that although Chan’s phsyical prowess and skill still come to bear on the film, Karate Kid gets more mileage out of Chan’s wonderfully wrinkled and craggy face and his ability to personify the softer side of this crusty maintenance man. Chan gives a real and robust performance here and he’s building Han into a specific character that doesn’t feel like the Jackie persona we’ve come to know over the years. It’s because of this that we aren’t watching a movie about Jackie Chan training Will Smith’s son, and that makes all the difference.

Han is a significantly different character from Miyagi, not as wise or centered as Morita’s handyman. In fact, Han is actually a lonelier, more broken man at the start of the film, and he’s not just sitting around waiting to be discovered by someone, he’s hiding. There’s a backstory built into Han’s trajectory that gives him as much reason to succeed in Dre’s training as Dre himself has. Certainly it’s a little predictable, and written in broad strokes, but Chan really humanizes that plot arc and when the payoff comes it has signifcant emotional power. Dre cites Han as being ‘like Yoda’, which was true of Miyagi, but in reality he’s much closer to the hermit Obi Wan training young Luke and hoping to whitewash the wounds of the past with this new hope.

Although Chan makes the master a man with much to give and much to gain, the picture would be lopsided if we didn’t have a rooting interest in Dre. Jaden Smith, who hasn’t really jumped onto my radar previously (let’s face it, it’s easy to be an effective cute kid on screen), does good, solid work as Dre. He has it harder than Macchio not just because he’s younger, but physically, he’s even slighter. We see him training and my first instinct is to worry about his safety.

Instead of minimizing the danger or impact of the martial arts sequences, making Dre younger than Daniel has the opposite effect. Every punch makes us winch that much more, and when he’s getting a beating, it looks rough. He’s also got the odds stacked against him thematically, because Daniel san wasn’t just fighting for respect, but in the end, the things he believed in. Smith’s Dre is still a bit ahead of ‘discovering himself’ so he has to give the young boy enough interior strength to suggest that Chan’s Han would take a chance on training him at all.

For my money, he’s completely convincing, but better yet is that he doesn’t resort to mugging for the camera or trying to replace pluck with sass. There’s a real affectionate interplay between Han and Dre and it’s another testament to their work that a grubby handyman spending long hours with a little kid doesn’t turn creepy. When it comes to the fight, Smith does a fine job, and in the final tournament I actually think he sells the transformation this kid has gone through far more scucessfully than his predecessor.

The only downside to the film is that it doesn’t have the originals sense of sleek efficiency. The first Karate Kid is a lithe, streamlined machine that does exactly what it’s designed to do, and it gets us to the big tournament and the pay off with no fuss. This new one is around 2 and a half hours and it tries to keep all of the original elements while adding the new stuff, when it would have made sense to trade some things out. Chief among those things is the romantic relationship between Dre and a young Chinese girl, Meiying.  I’m not sure I understand why Dre needs a love interest, and since he’s at a young enough age that the relationship lacks any real dimension, it just sort of burns screen time. It doesn’t stall the movie, but it causes it to sag slightly, and we the audience are feeling the length as the picture moves into the final third.

But, when we get to the tournament, there’s no room for fatigue or downtime. The execution of the competition sequences are flawless, and all performers, Henson included, bring their emotional A game to the last round. As an audience, we know how this has to end, what we need tos ee in order to feel we’ve made a worthwile journey with Han and Dre, and the conclusion isn’t in question. All of that is fine, but in a movie like The Karate Kid, it’s all about how strongly we are made to feel that conclusion and if it resonates and reinvigorates all that came before.

The refreshing thing about this Kid is it doesn’t just reinvigorate its earlier passages, but the film that came before it some 25 plus years ago. I can’t think of a better use for a sequel than that.