Thursday, February 24, 2011

"The Karate Kid" (2010)

Starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan and Wenwen Han
Written by Christopher Murphey
Directed by Harald Zwart

The Karate Kid (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy) (2010)Ah, remakes...  Sometimes they turn out really well.  Sometimes, not so much.  Thankfully, "The Karate Kid" belongs to the former camp.  Starring young Jaden Smith and martial arts legend Jackie Chan, it's a surprisingly well-made film that follows the basic backbone of the 1980s original while putting a new and modern spin on the tale.  It has a few issues that keep it from being truly great, but this is a solidly entertaining film.

Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is upset to learn that his mother Sherry (Taraji Henson) has accepted a new job in Beijing, China.  They pack up their things and move all the way across the world.  Dre speaks no Chinese, and immediately doesn't understand the culture or people in China.  However, he soon meets a young girl named Mei Ying (Wenwen Han) and begins to crush on her.  Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of a group of local Kung Fu students and bullies, led by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang).  Cheng beats up Dre, and then proceeds to bully him constantly at school. 

One day, Dre gets revenge by dumping a bucket of dirty water on Cheng and his friends, only to face another beating.  This time, however, he's rescued by Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the kindly maintenance man at Dre's apartment building.  Han, it seems, is a Kung Fu master, and handily defeats the boys by using their own moves and bodies against them.  Impressed, Dre asks if Han will teach him Kung Fu.  Han refuses, believing that Dre's reasons ("How about to whup someone's ass?") aren't what Kung Fu is about.  Instead, he goes to Cheng's Kung Fu studio to tell the boys and their master to leave Dre alone.  But the Kung Fu master, Li (Yu Rongguang) refuses to allow his students to back down, and challenges Han and Dre to enter an upcoming tournament.  Han agrees, and tells Dre he will train him in Kung Fu to fight in the tournament.

Dre and Han begin to grow closer and develop a real friendship as their training continues.  Meanwhile, Dre gets closer to Mei Ying.  He convinces her to cut school, but it nearly ruins her future when she almost doesn't make it to an important violin audition in time.  Her family forbids her to spend more time with Dre.  Eventually, Dre knows enough about Chinese culture to approach Mei Ying's family and make things right, just in time for the tournament where he will face off against Cheng and the dastardly Fighting Dragons.

"The Karate Kid" follows the same basic structure as the original, fairly faithfully in fact, but still manages to feel like its own film.  Sometimes remakes and adaptations can feel like they are simply going through checklists of things from the original that need to be included, but "The Karate Kid" 2010 feels pretty organic.  There are the requisite training montages, updates of particular scenes and ideas from the original, but the film never feels like its copying the first film, even at the end when the tournament is almost beat-for-beat like the original - on down to the dirty moves Li orders his fighters to use against Dre, and the super-secret Kung Fu healing powers employed to allow Dre to finish the fight.

One area I must praise is the performances of the cast.  The child leads, Jaden Smith and Wenwen Han are both very likable, delivering performances that are believable and easy to watch.  It's probably too early to say if Smith has the kind of future ahead of him that his genes might imply, but here he carries the film well - both in his character and his ability to sell the various Kung Fu moves.  I'm sure some of the more complicated ones are achieved with Hollywood magic (body doubles, CGI, wire-fu, etc) but we do get to see Smith himself performing some pretty impressive feats.  The characters in this film are much younger than their counterparts in the original, but the Kung Fu seems pretty advanced for their ages.  It's a little strange to watch these young kids pulling off moves we're used to seeing from older folks like Chan or Jet Li, but impressively its all shot and choreographed. 

Jackie Chan is great as Mr. Han, originally Mr. Miyagi played by Pat Morita.  The relationship between Dre and Han is still key to the success of the film, and the two actors are quite able.  Chan constructs a character in Mr. Han who is damaged, but is reinvigorated by taking on Dre as a student and, ultimately, a surrogate son.  They lift each other up through the learning of Kung Fu and ultimately in participating in the tournament. 

There are two problems with the 2010 version of "The Karate Kid."  Firstly, the running time.  The film is nearly two and a half hours long, which is somewhat unnecessary.  It could probably stand to lose a bit of that time and not lose any of its emotional resonance, and indeed feel a bit snappier in the process.  It's strange that this first problem leads us into the second, which is that the villains of the piece, Chen and Li and the Fighting Dragons, have very little development as characters.  They're essentially thugs, serving only a narrative purpose as antagonists.  Cheng in particular is portrayed as a vicious young man; at the tournament, he is constantly warned by the referees because he's so violent.  With two hours and twenty minutes of film at their disposal, it might have behooved the filmmakers to allow the Fighting Dragons some humanity.  It makes Cheng's turnaround after losing the tournament feel empty, since we never saw him care about anything other than destroying his opponents as viciously as possible beforehand.

Still, a solid script, great direction and good cast make the 2010 remake of "The Karate Kid" an entertaining exercise.  The problems with it are minor, otherwise this is a fine film, worthy of its title and heritage.