Mark Reviews Movies


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Harald Zwart

Cast: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Zhenwei Wang, Rongguang Yu

MPAA Rating: PG (for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language)

Running Time: 2:11

Release Date: 6/11/10

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 10, 2010

The update of The Karate Kid does one thing really well, and that is to remind us just how good a film the 1984 original is. The simple story of a kid learning to defend himself against bullies and standing up for his integrity is bolstered by the relationship between student and teacher. Director Harald Zwart somehow retains the heart in the remake, although it's overshadowed a bit too often by flashes of excess that deviate the focus from that central spirit.

Upping the fish-out-of-water nature of its hero, modifying the lessons of his teacher, and swapping the martial art he learns (although the title remains the same, except in China), The Karate Kid does vary in some cosmetic ways from its originator, although the specific narrative points and thrust are exactly the same.

Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his mother (Taraji P. Henson), after her job at a car company is transferred, are packing their things in Detroit to move to California—sorry—Beijing. There, Dre works to fit in, catching the eye of local girl Meiying (Wenwen Han) at the park and the ire of the local bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who has an almost obsessive need to control everyone's schedule (Meiying should be practicing her violin instead of flirting with the new kid). Cheng is a well-choreographed bully, pummeling Dre into submission with his mastery of karate—my bad—kung fu.

After more talking with Meiying and egging on Cheng and his bully buddies, Dre continues an uncomfortable life in his new surroundings, walking out his way to avoid his tormentors. During one confrontation (resulting after a chase through the streets which has Cheng and his friends leaping over a wall and other feats), the apartment building's super Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) fights Dre's battle for him, using the young ruffian's own hits against them, in that comic way Chan can do so well.

Dre and Han meet with the bullies' kung fu master (Rongguang Yu), and Han ends up entering Dre in the forthcoming martial arts tournament. If Dre wins, the kids will stop picking on him.

What follows should be familiar even to those who have only heard about the story of the original. Han begins to teach Dre the ways of the martial art in odd ways. Gone are the waxing and painting exercises, replaced with the taking off, hanging up, and putting on of Dre's jacket, a trick Han decides to teach the young pupil after observing the kid tossing his jacket to the floor of the apartment, in spite of frequent scolding from Dre's mother. It's about a repetitive task, obviously, something about learning patience and, this time, respect for one's elders. It's also, again, a way to practice muscle memory, and after much repetition, Dre is able to block all of Han's attacks with rapid precision.

That scene manages a surprising level of involvement, even if we've already known exactly how the training will turn out from the start. That is also the way of the movie's final tournament sequence, which follows the same dramatic arc as the original (fight, win, fight, win, montage, fight, sustain an injury, find inner strength to compensate, etc.) but holds its own ground. Part of it is the increased ferocity of the fights (replayed for the audience (both at the tournament and in the theater) on a large-screen board complete with a pointless scorekeeping function), but most of it is in how Dre and Han's relationship has developed until then.

The mentor/student dynamic remains largely unchanged, although a key scene, in which Han tells of his guilty over how his wife and child died, has—as corny as it sounds—the pupil teaching the teacher a lesson. It's a reserved scene, made effective by Chan's focused and soft performance, and it's not the only one. Dre and Meiying share a not-so-secret kiss in front of the light projector for a shadow puppet performance, and there's a level of unspoken racism among certain characters that adds genuine tension to Dre's struggle for respect.

On the other hand, there are exotic flourishes of the travelogue with which to contest, as Dre visits the Forbidden City, climbs to a mountain temple where a woman controls a snake with the movement of her body, and exercises atop the Great Wall—training and tourism footage in one.

The major problem with The Karate Kid—and it is a big one—is that the movie is wholly derivative at the core. It follows the route of respectful homage and rarely steps out on its own feet.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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