The first question upon entering the remake of The Karate Kid concerns the casting of Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith): can he carry a film or is this merely an extraordinarily high-profile instance of nepotism? Allow me to cut to the chase and say regardless of the motives of those who gave him the role he can, and does, carry the film just fine. Smith plays Dre, a twelve-year old whose single-mother (Taraji P. Henson) has been transferred to China. When he runs afoul of a group of Kung Fu practicing schoolmates, he enlists the aid of his apartment’s superintendent; the reticent, but Kung Fu proficient, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). It falls to Mr. Han to teach Dre the patience, perseverance and self-discipline required not only to practice the ancient art but to succeed in life.
Smith conveys, often times wordlessly, the frustration and anger of a boy forcibly uprooted and dropped wholesale into a foreign culture. In fact, relocating the proceedings to China is a masterstroke on the part of the filmmakers. While the original film dealt tangentially with the main character’s difficulty with assimilation it was a much smaller hill to climb. By moving the film to another continent they’ve taken the cultural divide from coastal to hemispherical, and in the process they’ve made Dre’s cultural disconnect the audience’s as well. This isn’t the China of travelogues. Instead, this is the workaday world of everyday living: small apartments, crowded streets, cramped public transportation. Dre doesn’t like living here and, even though we know there is much more to this land, it’s easy to see why he feels that way.
Chan is finally allowed to shed the cartoonish cloak he often wears in American films (especially as he ages and can no longer fully play the role of “action star”). By moving the film to China, Chan’s broken English cannot be condescendingly played for laughs as it frequently is. In this world (refreshingly) it’s Dre who is mocked for mangling of the mother tongue. The result being that Chan gives a remarkably restrained performance in what is often a surprisingly quiet, at times almost contemplative, film. This isn’t the sort of glossy, high-octane “reimagining” that Hollywood normally foists on an unsuspecting public. There are no cameos from Ralph Macchio or winking nods (save one small scene in the beginning) to the original. This film, for better or worse, isn’t trying to placate its audience with nostalgia. It sets out, and manages to be, its own film.
However, while the location may have changed, the overarching plot points have not. The film hits pretty much every major beat of the original. The humiliation, the bullying, the training sequences, the final showdown – it’s all here, which can be a bit tiresome for fans of the original. But they have managed to tinker with some finer details. “Wax on/wax off” has been changed to “jacket on/jacket off”. Though thankfully, they’ve managed to preserve the phrase’s pop-culture status as a masturbation joke.
With a running time of two hours and twenty minutes, the film could certainly have been tightened-up. There are scenes that could have easily been cut while others seem to meander to their finish and/or linger too long once they’ve arrive there. However, it’s hard to complain about a film taking its time to establish things such as “character” and “motivation.” This time last year, we were being subjected to the hyper-caffeinated yet yawn-inducing stylings of movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or Terminator Salvation. By the time the film arrives at its conclusion, the characters have earned any emotion you’ve invested.
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