The Karate Kid

"No weakness! No pain! No mercy!"

There’s a decent argument that this remake of The Karate Kid is fundamentally misconceived. The argument goes like this: the hero of John G. Avildsen’s 1984 original, played by a nerdy Ralph Macchio, was a sad, insecure little boy, who gets a measure of confidence and a chance to stand up for himself through his training at the hands of Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi. In the remake, directed by Harald Zwart, Macchio’s role is taken over by Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett. Smith, who must be one of the most preternaturally self-assured child actors to ever appear on screen, is the antithesis of nerdy and insecure — his Dre is small, yes, but full of confidence and swagger, and more than ready to throw a punch. His journey, then, is not a mental and psychological transformation, as Macchio’s was, but a purely physical one: he becomes a match for his bullies.

This is a bit simplified — I do think there’s some nuance to Dre’s character arc, even if it’s less than inspiring — but the point turns out to be more irrelevant than incorrect. This Karate Kid is a simple, exceptionally well-executed underdog story, bright-eyed and engaging, with a respectful sense of humor about its heritage. No one will call it a classic a quarter-century down the line, but this summer it’s a pleasure — old-fashioned, deliberate and unpretentious.

Aside from the cast — Jackie Chan has, notoriously and appropriately, stepped into the Pat Morita role — the biggest change that the faithful remake dares to make is to transplant the story from Los Angeles to Beijing. This may have been a trifle patronizing, but it isn’t arbitrary: it lends the concept of a school terrorized by an army of martial arts trainees, led by a psychotically ruthless (and weirdly pompadoured) sensei, some surface plausibility. (For a demonstration of what happens when a movie attempts the same thing in an American milieu, see Never Back Down — it doesn’t fly.) And it must be said that the bullies who terrorize young Dre immediately upon his arrival (his dad died, and mom got “transferred”) are not only plausible, but actually rather terrifying — acrobatic, tough, and all the scarier for their inability to speak English. If you can communicate, at least you can bargain.

No amount of pluck or attitude can help Dre in a showdown with these little monsters, which is where Jackie Chan’s unassuming handyman comes in. After coming to his rescue in the parking lot, Mr. Han takes Dre under his wing, and hastily promises the villainous sensei that Dre will compete in the big kung fu tournament a few months down the line. The rest is familiar, if ever so slightly shifted: “wax on, wax off” becomes a routine involving Dre’s jacket, hanging it up and putting it on; the love interest is a local violin prodigy with (of course) disapproving parents; the crane kick makes a triumphant return, though that part seemed a bit contrived.

What Jaden Smith’s Dre lacks in psychological depth he makes up in charisma. Smith himself is genetics in action: at age 12, he’s mastered his dad’s ability to hold the screen without doing a whole heck of a lot. It’s not a technical performance — nothing like what Elle Fanning, even younger, somehow pulled off in Phoebe in Wonderland, for example — but it’s remarkably effortless, natural and convincing; he may just be “playing himself,” but that’s not really a criticism. It takes a very real kind of talent to play yourself and make it compelling.

Smith’s certainly up for the physical demands of the role, having learned kung fu from Jackie Chan’s long-time fight choreographer. Chan himself slips effortlessly into the role, giving the most endearing, low-key performance of his career; he and Smith have terrific chemistry, every bit as potent as the interplay between Macchio and Pat Morita. The movie is long — nearly two and a half hours — but doesn’t feel dragged out; it takes its time and gives the characters a chance to breathe. The climactic tournament, which features a few fantastic fight scenes, goes pretty much exactly the way you expect, but the movie earns its retreat to convention. We’re invested enough to care even though the outcome is never in doubt.

The Karate Kid‘s biggest disappointment comes at the end of the tournament’s final match-up, when the film relies on a stunt double to pull off a couple moves that Smith (not surprisingly) couldn’t do himself. It’s distracting, unnecessary, and kind of offensive given the film’s good-natured emphasis on standing up for yourself even if you happen to be smaller or weaker than your opponents. It’s a phony and cynical conclusion to an otherwise terrific remake.

-- Eugene Novikov

The Karate Kid
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