The extent to which The Karate Kid succeeds, and I think it mostly does, depends almost completely on the performance of young Jaden Smith. He is sickeningly likable; his charm and charisma overwhelm every other performance, even Jackie Chan’s. I’m not saying he’s a great actor. He isn’t. Not yet anyway. He flubs some scenes but he certainly has raw talent and has great potential. It is a talent that he and director Harald Zwart exploit fully and effectively. Anytime the other boys taunt him or attack him we instinctively seize up, uncomfortable with seeing this small kid we can’t help but like being humiliated and beaten. His age probably has something to do with this. At 12, he is much younger than the character in the original film, but that didn’t bother me (as it has with some critics). I think making the character younger made the entire situation more harrowing. I felt less pain seeing Ralph Macchio beaten up than Jaden Smith. Macchio, despite his skinny frame, looked like he could handle himself in a street fight with proper training. Smith is so small and looks more fragile. We’re less certain that any amount of training can turn him into anything.
Well, we know he’ll succeed. I mean this is a remake of a standard underdog formula story here: the weaker person or team overcomes all the odds to win victory. We’ve seen this again and again in The Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks, Breaking Away, and, of course, Rocky (though Rocky actually loses his big fight at the end; we have to wait for the sequels to see him win). So we know the formula but what we are less sure of is whether Zwart will be able to make his transformation and, ultimately, his success against the bullies that have been terrorizing him successful. I think they do succeed. We gradually see Smith’s body becoming more limber, his punches and kicks landing more forcefully, his focus becoming stronger as the film progresses.
We all know this particular story of the boy bullied and threatened by martial arts students from the original 1984 picture. Smartly, the remake doesn’t retread the same geographical territory. We get out of the San Fernando Valley and move to the streets of Beijing. Dre Parker (Smith) and his widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson) move to China when she is transferred for work. She is excited about starting a new life a China, but Dre is less sure. Upon arrival he is almost immediately set upon by a group of bullies. When he tries to fight back the leader, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), pulls out kung fu moves that leave Dre bloodied, bruised and humiliated. Cheng and his friends continue harassing Dre until his building’s maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) steps in to rescue him from a particularly brutal attack. Dre is impressed that Mr. Han knows kung fu and asks for his help. Han and Dre visit the kung fu school (not karate as the title promises) that Cheng and his friends attend to ask Master Li (Rongguang Yu) to lay off Dre. Master Li is, of course, merciless, challenging Dre or Han to fight now. Han demurs, saying Dre will fight at an upcoming kung fu tournament. The duration of the picture involves Han training Dre. There is also a sweet though perfunctory love story between Dre and Meiying (Wenwen Han) that brings some nice moments, most notably a scene where he humbly asks her father for permission to be her friend after he has forbidden them to see each other.
Jaden Smith has the right amount of frenetic energy for this typical American kid with a short attention span. He is constantly bouncing around, chatting, joking, and acting disrespectfully towards others. This ADD-type behavior makes his becoming proficient in kung fu all the less probable, but Han spends a good amount of time breaking down unfocused energy and we believe it.
There are problems with the movie. First I would have liked to see more cultural education and conflict for Dre and his mother. It makes sense that they would talk about their experiences or things they learned during their days, but they seem to exist in different worlds, only coming together in the evening or going to buy ice cream. As they are written they could exist in any other city in the U.S. Also, there is nothing about how the Chinese might relate (or not) with African Americans. Sure they want to touch their hair, but would there be such openness towards them? I’m not so sure. Yes, Dre has problems with the bullies, but there is no indication that race has anything to do with that. I am almost certain people of African descent would have a different experience in China than people of European descent. It would have been a more provocative and interesting way to go if the bullying Dre takes is racially motivated. I wonder, since the film received some Chinese backing, if they were forced to scrub any racism from the script.
There are uneven scenes and sequences that remind us that we are watching a movie that really doesn’t have a lot of thought going into it. The direction at the kung fu tournament is especially bad, relying on jerky camera movements making the action a suggestion rather than anything concrete. I know that style is popular these days, but I think directors, not confident in their ability to stage action believably lean on this tactic to cover up flaws. But the most awkward isn’t an action scene, but the one when Mr. Han reveals the story of the death of his wife and son. It’s handled so poorly that what should have been an emotional scene falls flat. We see the director and Jackie Chan going through the paces. What saves it is Smith’s response, taking the bereaved Mr. Han out on the patio to practice. It’s a moving moment, but a greater director would have handled the front end better instead of relying on a 12-year-old to save it. But then, that is really what he did for most of the picture.
In the end it may be uneven and formulaic, but not fatally so. Whatever flaws the picture might have are made almost irrelevant by the dynamic presence of Jaden Smith. I hope early success doesn’t go to his head. He’s essentially starting at the top and, if he and his family are smart about it, has the potential to be a great movie star.