In the cloudy, misshapen eyes of nostalgia-ridden old codgers who spent their youth suckling at the cheesy teat of 80’s cinema, Harald Zwart’s “The Karate Kid” is, essentially, dead on arrival. Their inability to accept the fact that a remake could, in fact, trump John G. Avildsen’s 1984 original strongly suggests that they are forever stuck in their ways. This is, for the most part, understandable. Given the overall quality of Hollywood remakes as of late, even yours truly wasn’t able to thoroughly comprehend the film’s inherent potential. Anyone who bore witness to Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” has every reason to be skeptical.
Working from a script by newcomer Christopher Murphey, Zwart’s version of “The Karate Kid” is, in several ways, much better than its slightly dated counterpart. The connection between student and master has serious emotional resonance this time around, adding a layer of depth that I feel was sorely missing from the original feature. Of course, many of you will probably beg to differ, especially considering that there’s not a drop of karate to be found anywhere in the picture. However, if this is the only element that’s preventing you from enjoying an otherwise incredible cinematic experience, I implore you to stop splitting hairs for the sake of splitting hairs. Seriously.
Jaden Smith — whose superstar parents produced this mildly controversial reimagining — stars as Dre Parker, an all-American kid forced to relocate to China with his overprotective mother (Taraji P. Henson). Moments after arriving at his new home, Dre finds himself knee-deep in kung fu mayhem when he inadvertently confronts a pack of local bullies, all of whom are well-trained in the martial arts. In a flash, Dre is beaten down and humiliated in front of his peers, including the cute violinist who’s enamored with his braided hair. Despite several stern warnings from this roving pack of deadly pre-teen punks, Dre stupidly instigates another dangerous round of stylized fisticuffs by dousing them with a large bucket of murky water. The kids, of course, make quick work of our hero’s pathetic attempts at self-defense, forcing the apartment’s maintenance man, the mysterious Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), to intervene.
From this point, the film pretty much follows the original outing to a tee. In order to keep Dre’s pint-sized enemies from violently striking back, Mr. Han asks their arrogant, unmerciful sensei to keep his band of rogue students in check. Not surprisingly, the teacher isn’t too thrilled with Han’s proposal, and promptly gives the man an ultimatum: If Dre doesn’t fight one of the students, Han will be forced to take his place. In order to prevent anyone from getting seriously injured, the handyman suggests a more civilized solution, one that involves a kung fu tournament, some training montages, and lots of inspirational kung fu philosophies. If you’ve seen the original, you already know where this is headed.
From an emotional standpoint, Zwart’s version of “The Karate Kid” trumps the original in just about every way imaginable. In addition to providing some much-needed sympathy for its bullied protagonist, Murphey’s script nimbly captures the fragile father-son relationship that exists between the two central characters in a manner that was never touched upon in Avildsen’s incarnation. As the story progresses, you begin to see that Han needs Dre in his life just as much as the boy needs him. It’s a brilliant balancing act, but Zwart handles the material with surprising ease and a considerable amount of grace. His ability to generate tense, well-choreographed fight sequences isn’t too shabby, either.
“The Karate Kid” is rounded out by an Oscar-worthy performance from none other than Jackie Chan, who, for the first time in his entire career, is playing a character that doesn’t immediately scream JACKIE CHAN. In fact, everyone on-board is simply fantastic, which is, to be quite honest, an absolute surprise. Like you, I expected a full-on train wreck, a complete disaster perpetrated by individuals looking to make a quick buck on a beloved franchise. Fortunately for all of us, this simply isn’t the case. Zwart has taken a brilliant concept and simply improved upon it, nothing more. It’s a great companion piece to an American classic, one that should, in theory, invoke everything you loved about the original. Assuming, of course, you’re not too old to try new things.
Harald Zwart (director) / Christopher Murphey (screenplay)
CAST: Jaden Smith … Dre Parker
Jackie Chan … Mr. Han
Taraji P. Henson … Sherry Parker
Wenwen Han … Mei Ying
Rongguang Yu … Master Li