Mr. Miyagi is dead, long live Jackie Chan. Wait. What? The loveable action star plays Mr. Han, Mr. Miyagi's "predecessor" in the remake of The Karate Kid. It's a risky move, not just casting Chan in such a venerable, Oscar-nominated role but redoing an 80's classic that still holds up well today. But the risk pays off as the 2010 version hits on the necessary moments from the original while establishing itself as its own, unique movie.
Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) stars as a young American who moves with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) to Beijing (that's in China) only to find that adapting to the culture isn't as easy as he expected. Though he makes friends right away and even meets a cute Chinese girl, he also gets on the bad side of several kung fu-trained bullies. To the rescue comes Mr. Han, a troubled maintenance man who promises to train him for an upcoming tournament.
2010's The Karate Kid maintains the same thematic plot points from the original, but given its Chinese setting many of the finer points are altered significantly enough to allow the picture to stand on its own. Director Harald Zwart and screenwriter Christopher Murphey should be commended for avoiding the temptation to just modernize the original. This new Karate Kid is fun, entertaining and easy to watch, which is all we can ask for.
Smith turns in a good-enough performance in the lead. He is hampered by some cheesy dialogue, but in some scenes shows he has range. He was very good in Happyness, but comes off as too wide-eyed here. Still, he does a sufficient job.
Chan is the real surprise. I've always been a fan of Chan but would never have labeled him as a "good" actor. His attempts at dramatic in New Police Story were downright bad. But in The Karate Kid, Chan shows he has some chops. He's his own character - he is not Mr. Miyagi - but what he certainly is not is Jackie Chan. He's thankfully subdued, rarely goofy and, in one surprising scene, deathly serious. It's a refreshing turn for the actor and one that should help his career now that he's not able to pull off the stunts he once could.
To compare the 2010 version to the original The Karate Kid is only fair, so here we go. It isn't as good or as authentic as the original. It does have some hammy dialogue in parts and the fact that Smith is younger than Macchio was (by nearly two fold) has some bearing on that. While the original felt real in the snese that it was about an LA kid who learned kung fu, Zwart does go overboard in a few places. In one scene, Chan and Smith practice on top of the Great Wall of china. In another, they travel to a mystical temple where Smith sees a woman coaxing a cobra to follow her every movement - something that is referred to during the crucial final fight. Speaking of the tournament, it's a little on the elaborate side. These scenes look good but take the movie out of the realm of believability. The conflict is also forced at times. The girl's father forbids Smith from seeing her, but in a scene shortly later they make amends and the storyline is dropped. In other words, what was the point?
Despite its small flaws, 2010's The Karate Kid is an entertaining movie that will appeal to fans young and old. It doesn't match the original, but Zwart does a superb job of paying homage to the classic while establishing his movie as a new, modern brand. And to think what would have happened to poor Hilary Swank's career had The Next Karate Kid taken off like this one did.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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