The latest film to get the Hollywood re-make treatment is 80s classic The Karate Kid. Here the story remains the same; bullied kid finds a mentor in a strange old Asian man, learns karate and faces his tormenters in a martial arts tournament. But now, Ralph Macchio’s Daniel-San is Jaden (son of Will) Smith’s Shao-Dre, Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi is Jackie Chan’s Mr. Han, and California has been substituted for Beijing. Oh, and it’s not Karate anymore. It’s Kung Fu.
As the opening credits roll, with hip-hop beats blaring from the speakers, it’s clear that this is most definitely an update for a modern audience. I doubted whether a remake of the original would work two decades later - after all, it is very much a film of its time, with its fun, but cheesy and over-the-top appeal. Add to that the hair, the fashion and the music, and it’s difficult to imagine the film being set at any other time than 80s America.
However, the new version triumphs in truly retaining the spirit and charm of its predecessor. The relocation to China works surprisingly well, and serves to distinguish the film, giving it a different identity to the original. The city of Beijing, though being a typically tourists-eye view (characters visit the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City), is represented as being culturally diverse, and the scenery is often absolutely stunning.
Jaden Smith makes for an excellent Dre, clearly inheriting the acting skills and charm of his father. He retains believability as the kid forced to move from his home, friends and comfortable surroundings to a new life in China. His physicality is also extremely impressive - he has clearly worked hard for the role, performing many of his own stunts. When you see him balancing on poles whilst doing the splits, or high-kicking, or sweeping legs, that’s really him. Jacket on, jacket off, indeed.
Surprisingly excellent also is Jackie Chan as Dre’s unlikely mentor, Mr. Han. After a few years of taking roles in children’s comedies, its nice to see Chan back doing some martial arts work in one particularly thrilling sequence, protecting Dre from the group of youths intent on making his life a misery. Yet it is in his acting that Chan really impresses, portraying the sadness of Mr. Han’s past whilst still making him a fun and motivational character.
Parents should be advised that the darkness of this back-story may be distressing for younger children, as could some of the fights, which are surprisingly fierce at times.
As in the original, the film climaxes in a genuinely exciting Kung Fu tournament, with some well-choreographed action and a dramatically satisfying conclusion.
Running at almost two and a half hours, The Karate Kid needs to lose twenty minutes. Though the film never drags, a touch more editing would have resulted in a tighter and more sprightly finishing product. Some of the character introductions are fairly clunky, and the story is generally pretty predictable.
Despite this, the new Karate Kid succeeds because it knows what it is - a drama, with some comedic moments and cool fights. It’s a well known story, simply told, and is different enough to the original to retain a sense of identity but without doing it a disservice. It doesn’t condescend, nor does it think too highly of itself, but, crucially, it does entertain.
Entertainment Value: 4/5
Genre Value: 4/5
Overall Rating: 3.5/5