The Karate Kid” from 1984 is a classic feel-good Hollywood movie of its time. It was a multilayered mix of buddy picture and success story, appealing to the industry's primary focus group of young boys while being enjoyable for the entire family. It follows a poor kid from a dingy East Coast town and the cantankerous older mentor who teaches him how to win a big fight at the end. “Rocky” director John Alvidsen referred to his new film as “The KaRocky Kid.” It was a formula, but it was well done.
With excellent casting of established minor actors, the film focused on character development and story, well enough to inspire three sequels. Today, things are a little different. The new remake is here courtesy of producers Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, ostensibly as a gift to their young son, Jaden. The younger Smith's aptitude and suitability is questionable, as are other decisions, such as insisting on an international star in the supporting role. If Jaden is too young, Jackie Chan, recasting the Mr. Miyagi role immortalized by Pat Morita as a Chinese handyman, is a terrible casting decision likely made for monetary reasons.
“The Karate Kid” from 2010 has some likable elements, including a dramatic new location, some thrilling set pieces and a surprising update on the infamous crane technique, but it doesn't have the emotional kick that made the original so memorable.
In the new movie, mother and child again embark for a new start, this time to China, where young Dre Parker (Smith) struggles to fit in, meets a girl (Han Wen Wen), runs afoul of bullies and finds a teacher (Chan) who helps him overcome them. This “Karate Kid” could be called a remix; all the story parts are in here, and a lot of the dialogue too, slightly altered and reordered. Often you'll hear echoes from the first film, sometimes as homage, sometimes as parody, the latter doing more harm than good.
Some of these parts have an unconquerable appeal, such as the moment when the kid realizes he's been taught valuable lessons in self-defense right when he's about to give up his study. The original movie's memorable “wax on, wax off” training has been replaced with something like “jacket on, jacket off,” but the effect is similar. The best scene in the movie is when Chan's Mr. Han shows Dre that his epic, weeks-long punishment for leaving his jacket on the floor has been a muscle memory exercise turning the pipsqueak into a kung-fu expert. There's some kind of innate appeal at play here, a fascination of watching the pupil come into his own.
What the new “Karate Kid” can't do is make these two people believable friends. For one thing, there's the age difference. Smith is a little kid who won't be verging on manhood for some time. He isn't really ready for a mentor, and the male bonding that took place in the original is missing. The new movie tries to force the friendship theme but it comes off that way: a bit trite and hollow.
Chan especially lays it on too thick, most egregiously during a tear-jerker scene about his former family. Morita, as Mr. Miyagi, was able to show a completely hidden side of his character during the same scene, while Chan can only blubber ludicrously. Writer Chris Murphey and director Harald Zwart were able to rein in the actor's renowned goofiness, but they weren't able to turn him into Olivier — or anything close.
Some of the updates are equally puzzling, rewritten badly or copied willy-nilly, making one wonder why those responsible didn't adhere more closely to such a successful film. The central point, for one, is inverted. Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel-san, “Balance not just karate, but whole life.” In the new movie that line gets translated into “Kung-fu is everywhere.” Dre, injured on a stretcher near the end of the movie, says he'll never achieve balance if he doesn't fight on. Huh? Balance was a constant theme in the original, but not this time.
This is what happens when your focus is prestige and money rather than entertaining the public. Fantastically staged chase sequences might work, but the details, like a karate kid mastering kung-fu, slip by. “He who see only with his eyes is easily fooled,” Mr. Han tells Dre. Sound advice. (PG) 126 min. **