It's interesting how you can go into a movie with certain reservations, and occasionally, even though those concerns are essentially justified after seeing it, the overall experience is so satisfying that they don't quite matter any more – or at least as much. Even as a child of the 1980s and a fan of the original, I didn't have strong feelings about the prospect of remaking The Karate Kid, but I admit I was bothered by the name of a film that now would take place in China and feature kung fu. (it may come as news to some that not all Asian ethnicities are the same.) Also, as much as I like budding star Jaden Smith, his age (12) and scrawny build made it difficult to imagine watching him getting beaten up, even by other kids supposedly his age.
But all of those concerns became immaterial when I sat down to watch Harald Zwart's respectful, well-acted remake. Quite possibly the crowd-pleasingest movie I've seen all year, The Karate Kid masterfully captures the charm and humanity of the 1984 original, providing an experience to which all summer movies should aspire.
Smith – son of superstars-in-their-own-right Will and Jada - plays Dre, a Detroit preteen who gets uprooted and moved to Beijing when his mother's job transfers her there. Although he makes fast friends with an American neighbor boy and a cute Chinese girl named Mei Ying (Wenwen Han), a school bully named Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) promptly makes his life a living hell. After a feeble attempt at revenge gets him beat up by Cheng and his kung fu-school pals, a local repairman named Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) intervenes on his behalf. But when Cheng's martial arts instructor demands a fight to repair the school's honor, Han agrees to teach Dre to defend himself for an upcoming tournament, eventually learning a few lessons of his own while trying to teach the boy.
In terms of addressing those initial, going-in problems, I still feel like it was a mistake for the filmmakers to call the film The Karate Kid. Rather than chalking it up to cultural insensitivity, however, it seems more like a byproduct of marketing paranoia – namely, the fact that people might not have the same recognition factor if the film were titled The Kung Fu Kid (which it should be noted the film is titled outside the U.S.). As far as Smith's physical prowess is concerned, meanwhile, he's still a pixie of a powerhouse, and the first scene in which he gets his ass handed to him is actually really hard to watch.
Whether by accident or design, the original film discovered an important truth: watching a teenager get bullied and fight back is a lot more powerful than if he (or she) is a pre-teen. As a result, even given their obvious dexterity, it's hard to imagine most of these kids landing the kinds of chest-caving punches and kicks that a phalanx of foley artists helped bring to life in deafening stereoscopic sound in the finished film. Or, if they did, it's more sad than inspiring to watch a kid pound in another kid's face or deliver a kick that spins them around before crashing onto the ground. (Also, it's a little weird to watch kids this little romance each other, whereas if they were older that sort of discovery or maturation might feel, uh, less awkward for audiences.)
That said, The Karate Kid works like gangbusters from the very first scene and with few exceptions manages to find some real human truths amidst its complete immersion in underdog storytelling conventions. Notwithstanding his natural charm and an occasional impulse to act as if he's his father, Jaden Smith proves himself a formidable actor in his first major role; admittedly he lacks the automatic vulnerability of Ralph Macchio's Daniel, but his pipsqueak moxie gives Dre a certain charm and a resilience – both physical and emotional - that can't be underestimated. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan delivers a really terrific performance as Mr. Han, not merely aiming for Oscar gold (which he undoubtedly is) but giving the character some substantive emotional dimensions even when he's teaching the kid martial arts by making him pick up his jacket over and over again.
Most remarkably, The Karate Kid treats its Asian locale with a reverence, respect and refreshing lack of ethnic stereotyping, which gives the whole film a greater sense of legitimacy and seriousness. While there's some acknowledgment of the cultural differences between America and China, primarily for dramatic (although thankfully not melodramatic) purposes, director Zwart doesn't lean too hard on culture-shock or "Asian mysticism" clichés, instead allowing Dre to slowly learn how to define himself, both as an outsider and as a growing teenager, within the film's foreign world. Indeed, the film mines these deeper emotional conflicts but paints them with an energetic, contemporary feel so that the end result is something that transcends teen coming-of-age stories and inspires empathy from audience members of all ages.
In fact, it's this amazing universality that makes the whole thing work so well. I honestly can't remember the last time I felt myself enjoying myself so thoroughly while I watched something that, well, quite frankly I didn't expect to enjoy, and it's the feeling that you can be swept along and entertained almost against your will that gives this a perfect sort of summer-movie appeal. Although there may not be longer ones, there may be bigger movies released this summer, ones with spectacle and action and plot to spare; but The Karate Kid is all about capturing the essence of escaping the heat, sitting in a cool, dark theater, giving yourself over to the communal experience of watching a film with a crowd of like-minded viewers, and most of all, immersing yourself in the lives of a group of characters and the world that they inhabit.
And if you have your own objections to the film's existence, be they born of nostalgia, cultural awareness, or just disinterest, you needn't give them up. But be prepared to forgive them. Because The Karate Kid has so much charm that you may find yourself cheering it on - not only in spite of them, but in spite of yourself.