I should make it clear right off the hop: I really wanted to loathe this movie. Really, really badly.
And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here? Why would a man pay money to go see a movie he wants to hate? And that’s a good question. A good question, indeed. But if you’re reading this right now, the answer is you.
So far this summer, between Kick-Ass, Iron Man 2, MacGruber and Prince of Persia, I’ve yet to actively dislike a film I’ve reviewed. My Prince of Persia score could be described as middling, I suppose, but I was forgiving of its obvious faults because it kept me entertained. Likewise for MacGruber, which dumb as it may be, made me laugh like an idiot for most of its duration.
What does this have to do with The Karate Kid? Well, for you to be able to trust my opinion when it’s positive, I need to counter-balance it with some negatives. So far it’s been all positives, and I don’t want to be “that guy who loves everything.” So off I went to see something I hoped to hate.
What a shame then that the movie is as good as it is. All the ingredients for a bad film are present: Needless remake of a minor classic? Check. Nothing to do with the original? Positive. Misleading title? Affirmative. Jackie Chan? That’s a big 10-4. (Hey, have you SEEN the crap he’s been making lately?)
Most of all, I wanted to despise Jaden Smith. I’m not sure why. Maybe because, thanks to mom and dad, he never had to earn his stripes as an actor, and never will. Maybe it’s because his position seems to have given him a smug sense of entitlement that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s because he was awful in that other remake, The Day The Earth Stood Still. Maybe it’s his corn-rows. Or maybe it’s entirely because of this picture:
Whatever the reason, it doesn’t really matter. For as much as I wanted to hate this movie, you just can’t. It’s too well-made, too affecting. Director Harald Zwart has made a film that’s calculated in its emotional manipulations, but I’ll be damned if they aren’t effective.
Smith stars as Dre Parker, a young man torn from his life in Detroit and moved to China when his mother (Taraji P. Henson, of Benjamin Button and Hustle & Flow fame) is transferred there from her job at the auto plant. The plot loosely follows that of the original, putting even more emphasis on the “fish out of water” element — Dre is in China, after all, while Daniel-san moved to California. That the movie works as well as it does is a testament to the strength of the young Smith’s performance.
He’s quite charming in the lead, ably balancing the witty repartee and isolated sadness of life in a new world where no one speaks your language. His performance really stands out next to the mostly terrible child actors that surround him. Dre seems to hit it off well with a Chinese girl, and things are looking up until he’s savagely beaten by the girl’s brother and his friends just for talking to her.
He hates his life as an outsider in China and, like any good American, detests everything about the country. Everything except kung-fu, that is. Disheartened to realize the dojo he discovered is where his rivals train, he’s ready to give up entirely, especially when he fails to avoid his bullies on the way home from school.
Enter Mr. Han (Chan, in the Miyagi role), the maintenance man at Dre’s apartment building. He spares Dre a beating by dispatching the bullies, and afterward agrees to take Dre under his wing, training him in the art of kung-fu. After a run-in with the dojo’s ruthlessly evil master, Dre is scheduled to take on the boys one at a time in an open tournament. Sounding familiar? While this remake may not entirely adhere to the original, it is closer in spirit than either of its sequels.
Chan may be getting on in age, but he’s still got it — that bully beatdown is one of the better action sequences of the year so far, largely because of the way it’s filmed. We are treated to long, steady shots that let us appreciate not just the stunts being performed, but the fact that it’s Chan performing them himself, as well. Cinematographers take note: this is how you film action. A welcome relief after the chopped-up blur that was Prince of Persia.
But beyond just the stunts, here’s seven words I never thought I’d write: Jackie Chan gives a tremendous dramatic performance. Han has his own troubled past, and finds personal salvation in training “Shou” Dre. I am unashamed to admit that Chan made me cry in this film. More words I never thought I’d type. But it’s truth. The man is that damn good.
The movie has a strong visual sense, thanks in large part to the luscious landscape of the Chinese countryside. Indeed, one of the strongest impressions I was left with after the film was “Gosh, China is beautiful.” No surprise then that the Chinese government helped to produce the film. PROPAGANDA! The other thought was “Hey, that Smith kid ain’t half bad.” Mommy and Daddy also produced. PROPA…! Well, you get it.
If the movie is flawed anywhere, at 2 hours and 20 minutes it’s about a half-hour too long — especially when the end result is never in doubt. It uses that extra time to give its characters room to breathe, though there are a few music video-esque sequences in the early going that seem to drag on forever. Likewise, the kung-fu fights of the final act could use some trimming — especially since we’re subjected to videogame-like replays of every major hit. They’re mostly unnecessary and only weaken the initial dramatic impact of the hit they’re recapping.
The other flaw? The movie should be called The Kung-Fu Kid. While the plots are somewhat similar, this is a remake in name only. It’s trading on the “brand association” that the name carries, while cashing in on the 80s throwback theme of this summer’s offerings (The A-Team, Red Dawn, the list goes on). And it shouldn’t need to do this. This is a strong film that would make just as much money under its own name, and would be able to stand on its own without being measured against its predecessor.
Alas, my first negative review will have to wait, and with Toy Story 3 next on the docket, it won’t be coming soon. Maybe if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I’ll subject myself to Jonah Hex, so you don’t have to. Or perhaps Grown Ups? That might be too torturous, even for me.
The point is, as much as I wanted to hate it, The Karate Kid is a quality film that’s well worth your time. Just do as I did and run like hell when the credits roll. DODGE THE BIEBER!