Those who grew up in the 80’s saw “The Karate Kid.” It was watched in the theaters, on VHS, on cable on a Sunday afternoon or in classrooms when the teacher was out sick. For those who didn’t grow up in the 80’s VHS was like DVD, but way less cool. “Karate Kid” is an indelible classic because not only was it inspirational, but fun, creepy at times, and exciting. In comparison the new film by director HaraldZwart is no comparison. I’ll be honest, I don’t understand why the new version of “Karate Kid” was made. Money is the obvious answer, but when all is said and done this movie will never bring in the capital that the original has in its life time. This new iteration possesses none of the qualities that make the original John G. Avildsen movie first-rate.
To start off with the theme. Original – Daniel Larusso, played by Ralph Macchio is a poor kid forced to go to a rich kid school so the entitled bullies of the Cobra-Kai Dojo pick on him because he isn’t as affluent. Their sensei is an ex-soldier, a Rambo type, who believes that “Mercy is for the Weak” (i.e. poor). All this reflected the prevalent bend toward wealth and the military industrial complex pushed forward by Regan-Era financial and foreign policy. New – Dre (Jaden Smith) is a kid from Detroit forced to move to China with his mother (Taraji P. Henson), where he is picked on by a psychopathic kid, Cheng. There are hints at a cultural difference, but it is never fleshed out enough to be apparent. All this falls into the “Missed Opportunity” category. Had there been some effort to create a cultural reason why Cheng wants to pummel Dre, making him a symbol for modern Chinese economic dominance, the owner of all America’s debt, then the film could have stepped up to the plate.
Next: overall enjoyment. Original – There was a lot of fun, but also an air of true malevolence to the upper class bad guys of Southern California. In the scenes where they force Daniel off the road with their motor bikes, or when they first give him a real beating in the alley are creepy and atmospheric. Add to that the walking shower costume Daniel-san uses to hide in plain sight you have something truly inspired. New – Dre hides behind cars then throws water on Cheng and friends, runs through the streets of Beijing and is caught in a courtyard. Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) shows up and fights them in what is, admittedly, the most entertaining scene of the film. It hearkens back to Chan’s “Drunken Master” days in the sheer physicality of the choreography. But a fifty-six year old man verses a bunch of twelve year olds isn’t that exciting. In fact from the get go the whole thing seems pretty mismatched. Eighteen year-olds dressed as skeletons against the old Japanese guy from “Happy Days” is much more intense.
Lastly: believability. Original – It is easy to buy that a poor kid from New Jersey would be harassed by a bunch of country club commandos. New – Why is the crazy Chinese kids so angry with Dre? It is never explained, and throws a monkey wrench in the whole picture. Also in the believability category is Jaden Smith’s acting. The progeny of super star Will Smith and JadaPinkett-Smith,Jaden is only truly accomplished when crying. The scenes in which he has to be charming or funny never really pan out; only more proof that nepotism isn’t always best for big budget entertainment. While Ralph Macchio might not have been a young Anthony Hopkins he could actually carry a picture. The scenes with Jackie Chan are fun, and maybe after thirty years of acting experience Smith will have the same screen presence, but right now it is obvious that the magnetism innate in his father has skipped a generation. Maybe he gets the wooden, off-putting nature from his mother.
Then there is the title. Why not just call it “The Kung-Fu Kid”? There is a scene that addresses the problem in the film, but only serves to further point out the absurdity of the name. The script by Christopher Murphey follows Robert Mark Kamen’s structure to a T, but even so the demographic to which this film panders doesn’t even remember “The Next Karate Kid” with Hilary Swank, so what is the difference?
Finding that separation between a much-loved classic, and the remake can be hard at times, and judging the new film on its own merit is tough. To be fair the finale of the picture is entertaining, mainly because of the frank nature of the fight scenes. Watching Chinese tweeners brutally kick each other in the face elicits the same schadenfreude from an audience that Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” does. Though the compliments end there. Even if “The Karate Kid” had not been a remake it is still chock full of boring acting, uninspired set-ups, and unresolved motivations. Can’t wait for the “The Karate Kid II” remake. Does Peter Cetera have a son in the music business?
El Luchador Rating: 2 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)