1984's "The Karate Kid" is undoubtedly a beloved classic. An underdog story directed by the same man behind one of cinema's greatest underdog stories, "Rocky," the tale of a displaced teen from the east coast and the friendship he strikes up with a handyman out of necessity to learn self-defense, spawned two direct sequels and one half-hearted attempt at a re-launch. Gone is a twenty-something Ralph Macchio passing as a high schooler; in his place comes Jaden Smith, the 12-year-old son of Will Smith. Trying to fill the shoes of Pat Morita (who earned an Oscar nomination for his original performance as Mr. Miyagi), is perhaps the most well-known and beloved living martial artist, Jackie Chan, as Mr. Han. The original series was always known for having one "super move" that Daniel (Macchio) would learn and utilize in the finale to devastating effect and with this remake comes the most damaging yet. Forget what you know about crane kicks, drum punches, and katas, this movie delivers a knockout blow in the form of nepotism, specifically in the form of Jaden Smith's casting.
To director Harald Zwart's credit, this remake is a pleasant looking, mostly competent piece of film featuring some eye-pleasing cinematography that caught me off guard. Specifically aimed a much younger audience, the movie takes the original script and follows it without flaw, hitting all the major plot points that worked so well and even drawing from the equally enjoyable sequel in areas. The first two acts of the film are very tolerable, despite the uninspired dialogue and very average performances from supporting players. Dre Parker (Smith) is uprooted from his home in Detroit by his mother (an unusually shrill and one-dimensional Taraji P. Henson) and finds himself in Beijing. Quickly striking up a friendship with Mei Ying, a young violin virtuoso, he soon finds himself the target of bully, Cheng, a kung-fu student taught by a "very bad man," Master Li (Yu Rongguang). In order to settle their differences, Dre must compete in the local kung-fu tournament and Mr. Han is the only one who can train him.
While the movie is well made and handled in the first two acts, it becomes very apparent how soulless the actual production is. The movie is watered down in many emotional areas as an appeal to the younger crowd Jaden Smith is assumed to attract, but even I can remember being enamored at the 1984 original, even at seven years old, despite a hero in high school dealing with relationship issues. As I grew in years, my appreciation for the themes and emotion of the original film (I would also say the second film is as equally moving, if not more so), even though I could see Daniel LaRusso (Macchio) was a bit of an asshat. Here, our hero, Dre is a pompous jerk from the first second, picking the first fight with Cheng and even reigniting the rivalry after things seemed to have cooled off. Zwart counters by making the film's young villain so monstrous that he comes off as inhuman. His attacks on Dre are brutal and vicious and to be honest, it's a bit disturbing to see pre-teens attacking each other with such reckless abandon. When we get to the flat tournament finale full of highly stylized moves that reek of wire-fu in some aspects and flashy replays, one has to ask themselves, what kind of people are cheering 12-year olds who are punching each other full force in the face and attempting to break each others legs. It doesn't feel like a show of skill, but instead a fight to the death; the original tournament felt like a tournament and the nasty moves were saved for critical moments, here they are used willy-nilly.
Additionally disturbing and sloppy is the relationship between Mei Ying and Dre; what begins as an innocent friendship evolves into an unnecessary romance before reverting back to the original friendship. The romance for two young kids is not needed and worked fine as a purely platonic friendship. Discarded plots are a common factor in the film, largely due to the strict adherence to the important plot points of the original script. There is a blatant set-up for Mr. Han filling the fatherless gap in Dre's life and the few times he and Dre's mom meet, there is an understated attraction. When the film reaches the critical scene of Dre learning of Mr. Han's tragedy, the movie practically screams this will go to the next step, but alas, it's quickly discarded. One might ask, am I reading too much into things? I contest absolutely not. Another side plot I saw signs of building was a physical confrontation between Mr. Han and Master Li. Li seems to have a history with Han and in the final tournament scene openly mocks Han's private tragedy. This coupled with Li's earlier invitation to a fight suggests a confrontation between the two is inevitable. Nothing results from this side plot, however, fellow reviewer Brian Orndorf does confirm the film's alternate ending on the Blu-Ray features just such a fight. I guess Zwart felt he had to be a slave so much so to the original that he filmed a confrontation between rival teachers and then cut it; this happened in the original, but the deleted scene served as the opening of the sequel.
Finally, the biggest flaw in the film is the soulless performances from all involved. Only Zhenwei Wang as Chen is memorable, for being so menacing. Smith and Chan put no energy into their performances with the former showboating in every scene to embarrassing effect and the latter, shuffling through scenes not because of his character's emotional trauma, but merely because this is likely another paycheck to fund a much more enjoyable Chinese film. Chan, like many other Chinese actors has been wasted by American filmmakers, and here his casting feels like a wasted opportunity. He has one fight scene against an entire gang of Li's students and it is the film's most exciting action scene, with Chan using his enemies' offense to his own defense. However, when it comes to the training sequences, the majesty of the original's montages aided by Bill Conti's score and Zamfir's panpipes are a distant memory. Here we get hanging up jackets and shadow moves; where Dre actually learns Kung Fu is a mystery to me.
"The Karate Kid" (or "The Kung Fu Kid" as it was appropriately known overseas) is a competently made film for its target audience. However, aside from the Chan fight and one extended sequence where Mr. Han takes Dre to his home village, there's not much here for anyone else. It's a soulless retelling of a classic story that serves no real purpose other than to inflate the ego of Jaden Smith and build him as a star. It fails greatly on that account as Smith, who was charming in "Pursuit of Happyness" is so smug and stilted here, I could care less if I ever saw him in another film. The original Karate Kid is a story that stands the test of time and would easily be well received by this film's target audience.
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer highlights the generally pleasing cinematography. There's a bit of edge enhancement and some inconsistencies in grain/noise, but fortunately the color levels are strong, showing off a vibrant color palette in a number of high-energy scenes. Contrast is solid as well and given there are a few crucial scenes in low light areas, this is a positive factor. Detail is merely above average, with the overall levels of detail varying at times, regardless of the type of shot.
The English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track is quite serviceable, with the (mostly) modern soundtrack taking full use of your surround system, while James Horner's score is a little more subdued. Dialogue is clear and well balanced without distortion. The lower range could have used a little more life, especially during the fighting scenes. An English descriptive audio track is included as well as French dub. English and French subtitles are included as well as English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
The DVD is sparse in the bonus features department, with the most substantial extra being your standard, roughly 20-minute promotional special titled "The Making of The Karate Kid." The other two extras are a video for the end credits song featuring Jaden Smith and Justin Bieber and a Chinese Lessons feature with relies heavily on film clips.
A lifeless remake with strong production design, "The Karate Kid" isn't worth your time, even as a curiosity piece. It's entirely too long for what little it accomplishes; if it had to be lacking so much heart, the editor should have had a more liberal hand. As it stands, there are too many stories that go nowhere and action scenes that don't belong in a kid's movie. Skip It.