Essentially encapsulating the events of the first two films into one, The Karate Kid 2010 (that’s how I refer to it) repositions the coming-of-age saga of 12-year old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his single mother (Taraji P. Henson) as they leave the failed economy of Detroit and make their way across the world for a better life in Beijing, China. And thus begins a story of a young boy coming to terms with his own maturity and growth in a strange new environment, but this remake allows the story to unfold at its own pace and breathe, with a much greater emphasis on explaining the mysteries of Kung Fu and its relationship to everything else. The net effect is a fuller, richer experience that expands the mystical Orientalism the original only hinted at while retaining its central power of self-respect. In short, this is a great movie.
The original film had Daniel and his mother crossing the country from New Jersey to California, a journey that almost seems quaint compared to this remake. Theorists will likely see a socioeconomic parallel in this, as China assumes its place among the world’s economic superpowers – often at the expense of the United States. A good portion of the movie is subtitled and wonderfully unrelenting in presenting China (or at least this version of it) wholly Chinese and every bit the strange wilderness it must seem like. It’s also the rare Hollywood blockbuster in which none of the principle characters are white, yet never makes race a defining issue, and treats its audience with uncommon respect with a story that transcends all of these superficial things.
Those familiar with the 1984 original should feel an odd sense of familiarity in this 2010 update, as the new film follows many of its key scenes – and dialog – almost verbatim. With his mother’s transfer to this strange land separating him from everything – and everyone – he knew, Dre soon finds that adjusting to his new life won’t be easy. Despite early friendships with other English-speaking expatriates at his new school and winning the affections of pretty Mei Ying (Wen Wen Han), a group of Kung Fu brandishing bullies is determined to make things as rough as possible. Led by the sneering Cheng (played with uncanny vile by Zhenwei Wang), Dre soon learns that his diminutive skills in Karate are no match for real home-grown Chinese Kung Fu.
When his building’s lonely maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) rescues him from a particularly savage attack, he agrees to teach Dre real Kung Fu, becoming not only a surrogate father figure to the boy but also establishing a relationship both desperately need.
In spite of his famous genetics, Jaden Smith (son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, who also produce the film) does an admirable job in his first starring role of a major feature. His Xiao (pronounced Shao) Dre takes the reigns from Macchio’s Daniel-san and seems more than capable of giving his all to the role, putting his small body through the ropes and emotional growth necessary to make his Dre Parker a sympathetic successor.
But perhaps the most iconic performance belongs to that of Jackie Chan, who after decades of thrilling us with some of the most inventive and (often) bone-crushing stunts in film history, and has finally reached the point in his career where transition is necessary. It’s difficult to think of a role that fits this changing of the guard better than a modern-day Mr. Miyagi/Mr. Han. The relationship between the two is what carries the day, and while Chan’s Han may lack Pat Morita’s subtle comedy (a real surprise), the necessary bond they form feels as vital and important as ever.
I think those unfamiliar with Chan’s other dramatic work will be surprised to see just how good an actor he really is, and while he’s attempted to shed his superhero persona for some time (mostly in Chinese productions) here he embraces the duality of a role that requires both skills to succeed. Watch his eyes when he explains what real Kung Fu is to Dre, or the emotional impact when the tragedy of his past is revealed. He’s long been one of cinema’s greatest gifts, and what I wouldn’t give to finally see him follow in the footsteps of the man who originated this role and earn the label Academy Award-nominated Jackie Chan.
Taraji P. Henson’s single mother is nothing but love, and Wen Wen Han as the precious violinist who steals Dre’s heart is particularly effective. Yu Rongguang (Iron Monkey) as the villainous Master Li is especially thrilling as the maniacal instructor who indoctrinates his students with mantras of “No Mercy” and beating them senseless. While it’s a small part, I was really impressed with Ji Wang’s warm role as Mrs. Po, Dre’s school principal, and yes, that really is the great Michelle Yeoh snake-training high in the Wudang Mountains. It’s a great multi-language cast that really gives this update a better and more balanced sense of itself than the original ever did.
Another substantial upgrade over the original is the actual fighting itself, which thanks to the presence of Jackie Chan and twenty-five years of recent cinematic history to draw upon, actually looks and feels authentic this time around. The reduction of the principle characters’ ages to preteen levels doesn’t let them off the hook, either. How this film escaped with just a PG rating is beyond me.
In fact, it’s downright brutal, and I was genuinely shocked to see just how far the film went, especially with new sociopathic Cheng (a star-making Zhenwei Wang, owning the William Zabka role) at the front of the pack. These kids unleash martial hell on each other, and I can’t think of another kid-centric movie where the onscreen violence was this visceral and realistically rendered. Bodies get smashed to the ground, limbs are bruised, and more than once I thought I was watching one of Chan’s older films like Drunken Master.
While some parents may wish to shield their kids from such unrelenting trauma, those willing to make it through earn the right to fully appreciate what this was building towards. The first altercation between Mr. Han and Dre’s bullies is that payoff, as this simple maintenance man fends off a group of children brawlers without throwing a single punch. Another scene, this version’s penultimate wax-on/off lesson, brings this lesson home with a spiritual punch as few movies are entitled to.
The Karate Kid 2010 is almost twenty minutes longer than the original, but the extended running time is put to good use as director Harald Zwart (The Pink Panther 2) and cinematographer Roger Pratt (Brazil) take full advantage of their subject matter and with James Horner’s orchestral score make it a treat for the senses. From packed streets to the rare peek into the Forbidden City to the lush, achingly beautiful Wudang Mountains , this is truly a gorgeous movie, , and thanks to generous financing by the China Film Group, a veritable travelogue of this increasingly important global superpower. For Zwart this is a new beginning, if he continues down this path, as nothing in his past even suggested he had the capacity to render such a compelling cinematic narrative and do it this well.
I’d also like to dedicate a few minutes to the scurrilous beating this film has taken by ignorant critics and short-minded fans of the original film claiming cultural insensitivity. Some claim that Jaden Smith, who was only ten during filming, was too young and spindly to play the part of Dre Parker. Funny, as Ralph Macchio was a twenty-something playing a teenager during the original, and was considered quite spindly even back then. And about that cultural insensitivity over keeping the name Karate Kid over the more appropriate Kung Fu Kid? Have we forgotten that Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who had to adopt Charlie Chan-like broken English for his iconic role, was specifically asked to use his Japanese name to sound more ethnic to help sell his Japanese-ness to audiences who might still recognize him as Arnold from Happy Days? Yes, they probably could (and should) have renamed it to The Kung Fu Kid and moved on, but they didn’t, so get over it.
Sitting in my overflowing theaters of families, I began to realize just how important this tale of personal growth is for kids to experience, particularly in today’s world of overprotection and (some would argue) overbearing parents looking to shield their brood from the realities of the world as it exists. In this age of rotten and unnaturally precocious children on the screen, this generation is desperately in need of a hero that refuses to walk away from difficulties and his troubles; it’s crying out for one. Those present in my theater cheered when the credits rolled, and rightfully so, as this is a story that deserves to be cheered and celebrated.