12-year-old Dre Parker could've been the most popular kid in Detroit, but his mother's latest career move has landed him in China. Dre immediately falls for his classmate Mei Ying - and the feeling is mutual - but cultural differences make such a friendship impossible. Even worse, Dre's feelings make an enemy of the class bully, Cheng. In the land of kung fu, Dre knows only a little karate, and Cheng puts "the karate kid" on the floor with ease. With no friends in a strange land, Dre has nowhere to turn but maintenance man Mr. Han, who is secretly a master of kung fu. As Han teaches Dre that kung fu is not about punches and parries, but maturity and calm, Dre realizes that facing down the bullies will be the fight of his life. Written by
No wax-on wax-off but this Karate Kid would make Mr. Miyagi proud
Over the years, I have taken a lot of grief from friends for making The Karate Kid, the 1984 movie directed by Rocky Oscar winner John G. Avildsen, one of my five favorite movies of all time. So it was with apprehension and low expectations that I went to see the remake.
Wow, what a magnificent job of re-creating the first film while modernizing it, setting it in China, and bringing all the tension, man-love, and depth back to the big screen. This time, Dutch director Harald Zwart added wonderful scenic views of China and lost a bit of the sometimes-cheesy dialog. But to his credit, he kept a great deal of the original plot intact. Mom is transferred to Beijing and takes her son with her without much worrying about his feelings. Dre immediately finds trouble as the American outsider who befriends the beautiful Chinese girl. There is the evil sensei of the trained-to-maim thugs who rule the school that our hero, Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), has been thrown into. The bad kids target him, and he gets the heck beat out of him.
To the rescue comes the maintenance guy in the apartment building in which he lives. Played by Jackie Chan, Mr. Han isn't quite as sage as Mr. Miyagi but he uses almost the same technique (not exactly wax-on-wax-off, paint-the-fence, and sand-the-floor but close). His personal secret remains essentially intact, too, which when discovered by Dre, motivates him to work harder. The role of Dre's mom, played here by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), is beefed up from the part that Randee Heller played in the original. The young girl, Meiying (Wanwan Han in her first role), looks vaguely like Tamlyn Tomita, who played the love interest in The Karate Kid: Part 2. The rest of the film plays close to the original as well but I won't tell you if he wins (as Daniel LaRusso did in the original) or loses (as Rocky did).
Jaden Smith proves that he may be a force in the business for a long time. His parents, of course, are Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, and they have created a natural. That was evident in The Pursuit of Happiness. Hand it to the kid: he worked really hard to learn kung fu (it's not karate). And while I preferred Ralph Macchio because he was so raw and not talented as an actor, Jaden Smith knows the camera is always there, which I think he will grow out of over time. Jackie Chan is really quite good here, shedding the recent tongue-in-cheek comedy roles. This part fits him perfectly and Morita would have been proud had he lived to see it.
After my disappointments with so many other remakes, I was pleasantly surprised. The director and cast clearly found the balance.
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