Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is a thin, wiry and likeable 12 year old from Detroit. Leaving America with his mother, who is relocating to Beijing for work (his absent father is mentioned only once, in a memory-laden height chart) – he’s got his work cut out. He can’t speak Mandarin well at all, he’s got next-to-no-friends, he’s bullied by particularly violent kids schooled by Master Li (Rongguang Yu), a “No Weakness, No Pain, No Mercy” mantra-spouting kung fu instructor, and Dre has from his time in America is a skateboard from his best mate, and memories of Spongebob Squarepants dubbed in English.
Like the original, there’s even a rather atypical love story with Meiying (Wenwen Han), a sweet English-speaking girl Dre’s age. They have a fairly nice meeting, and evolving friendship. She is driven by her strict parents to practice the violin constantly – a not terribly subtle comment on the high expectations placed upon modern Chinese youth. It works well, forming a charming prepubescent romance. After Dre suffers a particularly brutal attack from his tormentors, the apartment maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan) steps in, and promises to teach him “real kung fu” and train him for a tournament where he will face the bullies.
All in all, so 1984 – and it’s at this point, too that you stop caring that it’s a remake. The film, directed by Harald Zwart, is a great step up from his previous efforts The Pink Panther 2 and Agent Cody Banks, and is illustriously photographed by Roger Pratt (the first two Harry Potter pictures). It is about as good as one can expect – a faithful update of the source story by Robert Mark Kamen, by newbie screenwriter Christopher Murphey.
Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) is a terrific find, with no “cartoon black kid” nonsense clogging up the work. He’s particularly good at the alienated, sensitive and easily hurt kid who’s longing for the past; he instinctively knows how to act for the camera – and is evolving into one of the most natural child-performers I’ve seen in a very long time. He’s Will and Jada-Pinkett Smith’s son – so screen charisma may be in the family.
The fanservice Miyagisims from 1984 are present and correct – Mr Han finds a new, and considerably more practical way of catching a fly with chopsticks, and lovingly restores a very special car with doses of wax-on wax-off. The fight scenes are mostly over-edited and undershot, with lashings of shots to the sternum and wince-inducing thumps on the soundtrack. Mr Han’s defense of Dre is the best fight scene by far. Watching Chan take on six 12 to 13 year olds to humiliate, but not injure them is very clever, but it’s a real fight, not at all a weak-sauce effort. The 56-year old Chan has still got it.
The training montages are obvious, present and correct – but the update of “Pat” Moriga’s training is strains credibility at first – but like the original, it kind of works. “Kung Fu is in everything we do!” exclaims Mr Han – as Dre grasps the significance of picking up, putting on and pulling his jacket off with perfect form.
The movie features Jackie Chan’s best English language performance. There’s pathos, depth and honest-to-goodness acting – and he truly sells the idea that student and teacher fit together like the yin-yang. It’s corny, but they’re good enough to give the movie its humanity and depth. He doesn’t remind us of Noriyuki “Pat” Morita’s Mr Miyagi, the little clipped man from the original whom noone pays attention to until it’s too late. Chan and the script make a halfway decent effort to combine the post-Imperialist China backdrops with the innate sense of being more than just Postcard Exotic Locations. There’s a really good story thread where Dre and Han visit the Great Wall, on an equally potent voyage of self-discovery – and refresh themselves with waters real, and metaphorical.
The Karate Kid is a good movie, with a pleasant and engaging story – but it’s about half an hour too long; at 140 minutes it tests patience. It’s not particularly great cinema, it does nothing at all that’s fresh or invigorrating and doesn’t replace or outdo the original. It’s just different – and equally worthy. Also, it’s infinitely better than this year’s other 1984 remake, A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Oh, and there’s no Karate. Perhaps that’s for part II?