My initial reaction to the concept of remaking “The Karate Kid” with Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s kid (Jaden Smith) was, “How dare they?!” How dare they take Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) and turn him into Dre (Smith), a 12-year old kid from Detroit! How dare they turn Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) into Mr. Han (Chan)? How dare they take the “karate” out of the movie in every way but its presence in the title and make what is actually “The Kung Fu Kid”?
How dare they!
My fuming was only reinforced when the first trailers came out featuring a scene where Chan’s Mr. Han is attempting to kill a fly with his chopsticks. That scene with Mr. Miyagi in the 1984 original is iconic; you won’t find many people from my generation that don’t know that scene well. Mr. Han, though, doesn’t get the fly with his chopsticks. Instead, he kills it with a fly-swatter and then pries it off the swatter with his chopsticks. Says Dre, “Um, that’s nasty.”
In hindsight, however, that sequence is a microcosm for 2010’s “The Karate Kid.” I don’t know that director Harald Zwart and screenwriter Christopher Murphey meant for folks to take it this way, but this was what I realized about their “The Karate Kid”: They dare because they are acknowledging they are simply updating a classic. They dare because they are not pretending this movie will be a classic.
It won’t be, either (although a sequel is already being developed). What 2010’s “The Karate Kid” is, on the other hand, is a quality re-telling of a great story. Dre Parker and his mom (Taraji P. Henson) move to China from Detroit because of her work. Dre deals with it better than any real 12-year old would, at least until he meets Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) on the playground; Cheng kicks the snot out of Dre for no real reason. That is how it is supposed to go, of course, because “The Karate Kid” requires a ruthless villain — even if he is 12 years old.
The elements that made 1984’s “The Karate Kid” so great are, for the most part, accounted for. The karate might be kung fu, and instead of Daniel-san adjusting to California it is Dre Parker adjusting to China, but the emotions are all the same. Dre gets picked on by bullies and the handyman happens to be a master martial artist. Dre, just as Daniel-san was, is easy to root for. It doesn’t hurt that Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s kid can act (his parents are both producers, by the way). Jaden seems right at home carrying a feature length, big budget movie in the middle of the summer blockbuster season. Chalk that one up to the genes from Dad. Macchio and Morita will always be the gold standard for chemistry, but Smith and Chan work quite well together. Remember “wax on, wax off”? Of course you do! We all do! That scene, with a 2010 twist, is here too.
Is it goofy that Cheng and his fellow pre-teens are such jerks? Is it weird that there is a romantic kiss between Dre and his crush, Meiying (Wenwen Han) when they are just little kids? Is it uncomfortable watching Jackie Chan cry? Yes, to all of the above. And I’ll still take Daniel-san’s crane kick over the one-legged-back-flip-super-kick to the face that Dre executes in this finale.
But, I watched all 140 minutes and enjoyed it. And, as any good re-telling should, it made me want to watch the original “The Karate Kid” again. It has been too long.