“Karate Kid” Lacks Punch
By Roxana Hadadi
There was nothing about the 1984 version of “The Karate Kid” that wasn’t heartwarming: The relationship between main character Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and handyman-turned-mentor Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) is tear-worthy. Daniel’s growing closeness with girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue) is pretty cute. And, though bully Johnny (William Zabka) torments Daniel for the majority of the film, their acknowledgement of each other’s skill at the karate final is downright respectable. Overall, it was a coming-of-age film that really understood the teenage experience and the different kinds of maturity and intimacy that come with growing up.
For the most part, the remake of “The Karate Kid,” starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, shares the same plot points: A new kid struggles to fit into a new town, feels isolated by the unity of the included, eventually begins to open up when taken under the wing of a caring father figure. And though the film has some missteps – the violence is somewhat overwhelming, it drags on, there’s a bit too much stereotypical Asian mysticism – it serves as a solid conduit for the moralistic messages of oneness that gave the ‘80s version a sense of depth.
But don’t get your hopes up too high: There is no “wax on, wax off” scene, and the final fight is slightly altered to seem more like a video game than reality. After all, this isn’t your parents’ “The Karate Kid.”
The film begins by introducing us to 12-year-old Dre Parker (Smith) who is moving to China with his mother, Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) after her job got transferred from a car factory in Detroit. Since his father died when he was 9, Dre has been a bit of a handful – though he obviously loves his mom, he’s taciturn about moving halfway around the world and takes out his frustration with little acts of rebellion, like leaving his jacket strewn on the floor instead of hanging it up.
At first, Dre tries to make friends – but after showing off his dance moves to violin-playing cutie Mei Ying (Wenwen Han), he’s viciously beat up by neighborhood bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who displays some truly amazing kung fu skills for a kid his age, and tells him to stay away from Mei Ying. Sporting a black eye on his first day of school, Dre continues to encounter Cheng – the kid smashes Dre’s lunch tray all over his school uniform – and decides to stand up for himself by watching an instructional kung fu program on TV and taking kung fu classes. But when he learns that Cheng is the star pupil at the Fighting Dragons Studio, whose Master Li teaches its pupils “No weakness, no pain, no mercy,” he’s once again at a loss about what to do.
Cue the all-knowing Mr. Han (Chan) who overhears a fight between Dre and his mother about the move to China and later saves Dre from a fight with Cheng and his crew. Though they’re mainly kids and young teens, Mr. Han has no problem putting them in their place – mainly because he doesn’t directly fight the gang, but uses their attacks (and their articles of clothing) against them. “I thought you were just a maintenance man,” says Dre in awe – but of course, nothing is at it seems, says Mr. Han.
Kung fu is about creating peace, not about making war, Mr. Han adds, but of course, Cheng and Master Li don’t see it that way. They threaten to continue beating up Dre, but Mr. Han strikes a bargain: Dre will fight in the upcoming kung fu tournament if they’ll leave him alone until then. Certain that Dre will fail, Master Li agrees – and so begins a training sequence that has Dre repetitively hanging up and putting on his jacket, traveling with Mr. Han to the studio where he learned kung fu years ago and eventually realizing there’s more to the martial art than just flipping kicks and learning to control cobras. There’s a sense of balance to all things in life, Mr. Han explains – and as the relationship between them grows before the big tournament, Dre realizes there’s more to Mr. Han, too. Nope, he’s not simply a maintenance man – there are greater layers to his backstory that dig deeper than just kung fu.
“The Karate Kid” does a few things to set itself apart from the original, of course: Though the film’s name stays the same, Dre and Mr. Han master the Chinese martial art of kung fu instead. In one scene, Dre even whines, “It’s not karate, mom!” And while Daniel was a high school senior in the original “The Karate Kid,” Dre is only 12 here, which actually makes the film a little less believable. His budding romance with Mei Ying is adorable, but her dance moves on the “Dance Dance Revolution” arcade game seem a bit grown-up; similarly, the fight scenes are bone-shatteringly brutal. These look like moves out of “Street Fighter” or “Mortal Kombat,” not your simple middle-school brawl.
Plus, who practices kung fu on the top of Great Wall of China?
But aside from those grievances, there’s a lot to like about the film: Smith holds his own, channeling the same kind of comic timing and wisecracking charm that earned his father Will his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” success, while Chan is solid in the dramatic role. He brings a quiet intensity that proves the man can do more than get by on his funny accent alone.
Will this version of “The Karate Kid” become as much of a cult favorite as its ‘80s predecessor? Probably not, just because that flick had a slamming soundtrack and was the original David-vs.-Goliath story. But thanks to Smith, Chan, some impressive (if painful) fight scenes and inspirational messages about humanity, it should tide over kids and parents alike.
Roxana Hadadi last reviewed “Get Him to the Greek.”
Is your kid looking to start kung fu? Check out our Enrichment Activities Directory for martial arts classes.