The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

What is the difference between a remake, a reimagining and a rip-off? Sometimes it can be little more than the derivative film's title – which is why Harald Zwart's upgrading of John G (Rocky) Avildsen's The Karate Kid (1984) finds itself caught on the horns of a dilemma.

In the UK and US it is being released as The Karate Kid, presumably to cash in on nostalgia for the original – but this almost immediately prompts the obvious objection that in Zwart's version, the kid learns kung fu, not karate, making the title parasitic in the most nonsensical manner. True, a scene has been shoehorned into the beginning of the film showing young Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) trying to learn karate from Chinese television, but one suspects that the filmmakers have a rather insulting lack of faith in their English-language-speaking viewers' ability to tell the difference between anything Chinese and Japanese – or as Dre's mother Sherry (Taraji P Henson) puts it, with alarming insensitivity to her new Beijing surroundings: "Karate, kung fu - whatever".

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In other countries, the film will be called simply The Kung Fu Kid – but that too is problematic, not least because the film follows every beat of the story from the original, kung fu-free The Karate Kid. In the free-for-all that is postmodernity, are narratives so readily transferrable from one culture to the next? Or is it just that this mystic 'true underdog' tale has been around in one form or another for a long, long time, in places far, far away? After all, as Dre astutely observes of a lesson on chi from Mr Miyagi's replacement Mr Han (Jackie Chan), it is "like the Force, in Star Wars - you're Yoda and I'm like a Jedi." So really, it hardly matters what the film is called when only the names have been changed to tell essentially the same old story.

There have, of course, been other changes, some of which are even improvements. Unlike Ralph Macchio's cocky teenager, Dre is just 12 years old, and somewhat diminutive for his age to boot, so that his vulnerability to the bullying of Cheng (Wang Zhenwei) and his friends is palpable – and the unbridled aggression of Cheng, and more importantly of his teacher Master Li (Yu Ronguang), makes them far more formidable than their equivalents in the original film. The combat sequences, too, have been carefully choreographed and furiously edited to be much more spectacular - be it the first (and only) view of Han's fighting abilities as he effectively gets his multiple opponents to beat each other up for him, or the final tournament sequence with a gravity-defying flip-and-kick manoeuvre from Dre forming its breathtaking climax.

That said, Zwart's film elongates the original's already thin materials to an excessively epic two hours and 20 minutes, padded out with a picture postcard tour of Chinese sites – a school excursion to the Forbidden City, a spiritual journey to Wudang Mountain, training atop a parapet of the Great Wall, courting love interest Mei Ying (Han Wenwen) at the Qi Xi Festival, etc. Perhaps, as Han suggests, "kung fu lives in everything we do", but that does not prevent much of what these characters do from feeling like exotic travelogue - pretty but also pretty pointless.

One can only wonder what Chinese viewers will make of this stereotyping view of their country through tourist's eyes – or how they might regard a story that has an (African) American taking on the Chinese big boys at their own game. It is hardly a stretch to discern geopolitical wish-fulfilment in all this, as Americans feel their hegemony threatened by China's rapid growth. Indeed, the only reason Dre has moved to Beijing is that, as Sherry tells him, "there is nothing left in Detroit", that once prosperous manufacturing city whose economic devastation is seen in the film's opening montage. China, this film suggests, may be muscling in as the world's financial leader, but America can still put up a fight where its dominance still counts – in the cultural medium. In cinema, if in few other arenas, the Chinese can still have their asses kicked.

"This is the Eighties!", Macchio's Danny Larusso had declared in the original The Karate Kid. It was a line that, at the time, encapsulated the way the film, with its synthesiser soundtrack, head bands and big hair, was surfing the zeitgeist – and which now, with the Eighties back in fashion, marks the film as so voguishly passé. Zwart's new Kid is similarly a film of its moment, filled with the furnishings of the Noughties (Spongebob Squarepants, Lady Gaga, a Dance Dance Revolution-like arcade game), while setting them in and against a context of ancient tradition.

Give it time, and this remake, too, will seem dated, but its coming-of-age story has a timeless appeal. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan gives his best performance in a Hollywood film, channelling the seriousness that has also characterised his recent Chinese work. Chan's more usual role as comic clown instead goes to Jaden Smith, and he is good, too. The presence of both his parents as producers might suggest nepotism in the casting, but no one would accuse him of failing to learn all the right moves.

In short, this is a respectful reimagining of 1984's The Karate Kid, if somewhat less respectful of the Chinese, and too long to keep the attention of the new audience that it courts.

Reviewed on: 26 Jul 2010
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After moving a to China, a bullied boy discovers a new approach to life as he learns kung fu.
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Scott Macdonald ***1/2

Director: Harald Zwart

Writer: Christopher Murphey, Robert Mark Kamen

Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P Henson, Han Wenwen, Wang Zhenwei, Yu Ronguang, Wu Zhensu, Wang Zhiheng, Lü Shijia

Year: 2010

Runtime: 140 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, China


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