THE KARATE KID 2010
Cast: Jackie Chan, Jaden Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Tess Liu
Work pressures cause a single mother (Henson) to move to China with her young son (Smith); in his new home, the boy embraces karate, taught to him by a master of the self-defense form (Chan).
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I've said it before, sports films are tough. They're tailor-made for inspiration, but it's really hard to make stretch them too far unless you begin to completely disregard the competition angle. Worse, the natural tendency to inspiration makes it easy for mawkishness and sentimentality to creep in. It's a delicate balance, one director John Avildsen ("Rocky," "The Karate Kid") was extremely good at, and any remake of one of his films has some big shoes to step into.
Director Harald Zwart ("The Pink Panther 2" and his writers Robert Mark Kamen and Christopher Murphey have made the excellent first step of refusing to do a note-for-note remake out of their version of "The Karate Kid." Like an episode of 'Dragnet' the facts are real but the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
This time around we get 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moving from Detroit to the far off land of China and dealing with some for real culture shock. Thankfully, no matter how far you go there are still some things you can count on everywhere: pretty girls (Wenwen Han) with disapproving parents, kids to play basketball with, and bullies (Zhenwei Wang). Bullies who are really good at kung fu. Oh, and handy-man played by Jackie Chan who can teach you the secrets of the martial arts.
These things really hinge on the tone and the ability of the actors to maintain it with charm and interest. Changing 16 year-old Daniel-san to 12 year-old Shao Dre turns out to be an excellent idea, removing the possibility of teenage angst to focus more strongly on Dre's coming of age with all the sweetness of youth. Some of the undercurrents of classism from the original go with it, but they're not missed and none of the lessons of youth are so saccharine they hurt the film.
It's helped massively by Jaden Smith's evident charm and screen charisma. He's come along quite a ways since his first two films, developing from a typically wooden child actor – reciting instead of performing – to capable lead who can believably carry a film. He even outshines his talented co-stars Taraji P. Henson and Jackie Chan. Chan himself, while steady as the old mentor, isn't quite at the level of those around him. He gets one excellent scene detailing the horrible loss he suffered that turned him into a misanthrope, but the rest of the time he's often left making faces instead of acting. His stretch into real dramatic acting is interesting but a little wooden.
Just as in the original, Dre finds himself conscripted into a local martial arts tournament in order to face down the bullies tormenting him, and Mr. Han (Chan) is the one who must get him ready. The level of skill he very quickly develops over just six months may strain believability a little bit, but by that point you're heavily enough invested in the characters not to care.
Zwarts' rousing tournament finish is actually one of the few places where the new "Karate Kid" comes out as superior over the original, thanks in large part to a bombastic score by James Horner that practically forces inspiration into your veins.
If you're too young to really recall the original version, "The Karate Kid" is an excellent coming-of-age sports film filled with heart and humor that doesn't test your gag reflex. Even if you are familiar with the first "Karate Kid," the new version is a worthy follow up, both comfortable and fresh, and that isn't easy to do.