Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson
Directed by: Harald Zwart (“The Pink Panther 2”)
Written by: Christopher Murphey (debut)
Honestly, there was absolutely no reason to remake “The Karate Kid.” As timeless as the characters Daniel Larusso and Mr. Miyagi have remained since the original film debuted in 1984, a reimagining of the crowd pleaser starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita would turn out to be a trivial tribute to one of the most admired sports movies of the past 30 years no matter which way you karate chopped it.
With that said, the modernized version of “The Karate Kid” – while it lacks much of the humor and 80s charm of its predecessor – is surprisingly well made. Insignificant, yes, if compared to the classic that features crane kicks, bullies in skeleton costumes, and Bananarama songs, but on its own, there’s still a little something special left to the familiar story. For those who were born in that era, don’t worry. Your childhood has not been ruined.
In the remake, which follows the original narrative fairly closely, Macchio’s role is taken by Jaden Smith, son of megastar Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who both serve as producers on the film. The pint-sized Smith, who gave a wonderful performance opposite his father in 2006’s “The Pursuit of Happyness,” stars as Dre Parker, a 12-year-old kid from Detroit who moves to Shanghai with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) after she is relocated for her job.
As in the original, a girl is the reason our young protagonist is faced with a major problem in his new city. Dre begins to develop a schoolboy crush on Meiyang (Wenwen Han), a girl he meets at the neighborhood park (Don’t worry, Elizabeth Shue. We’ll always love your baby fatness more). Dre’s innocent first interaction with her doesn’t sit well with a bully named Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) and his group of friends, who quickly take a disliking to the new kid in town.
When the situation gets out of hand, Dre finds support from Mr. Han (Jackie Chan in his best live-action, American film since the first “Rush Hour” over a decade ago), the handyman at his apartment complex whose kung fu skills save Dre during an attack and trigger a friendship.
After negotiating a temporary truce with Cheng’s unmerciful kung fu instructor Master Li (Rongguang Yu), Mr. Han tells Dre he will train him for a major kung fu tournament. But like Mr. Miyagi’s unconventional training techniques like painting fences and waxing cars, Mr. Han isn’t getting through to his pupil with his unique, but repetitive methods.
“The Karate Kid” reboot builds more of its foundation on Chinese philosophy that the original. While Mr. Miyagi offered up profound gems like “First learn stand, then learn fly,” Chan’s Mr. Han focuses on the human spirit and what it takes to face your fears and believe you can accomplish anything. It might make for a cliché lesson in the dojo at times, but Chan and Smith keep their friendship appealing enough although not nearly as affectionate as Mr. Miyagi and Daniel.
While there’s a lot to be desired from the remake, there is a genuineness to the story that is not lost. And in an industry where these types of movies are usually agonizing experiences, “The Karate Kid” still comes out on top as a memorable champion.