In 1984, a touching and off-beat coming of age drama called The Karate Kid graced cinema screens and became a commercial success. 25 years later, Hollywood is placing its bets that the same story with the same name, told in a completely different setting, will be just as bankable.
We’ve covered the Karate Kid briefly before on this site, noting that the various clips didn’t seem all too promising. The first movie had two things going for it: the surprise of meeting an unexpected hero-figure – an old man who turns out to be a martial arts god, and the sweet tale of teenage awkwardness transforming into something special.
By replacing Pat Morita with Jackie Chan, you lose the surprise. Sure, they’ve let his hair show some of his natural color, but nobody looks at Jackie Chan thinking he can’t kick ass anymore. And by replacing Ralph Macchio with the much, much younger Jaden Smith, you’ve lost the teenage awkwardness. Instead, you have a story about prepubescents beating each other up, which is awkward only because few people like to watch child abuse.
Anyway, I haven’t seen the movie yet. But here’s what the critics who have have to say.
“It’s a measure of the times that the new version of “The Karate Kid” manages to be longer and bigger-budgeted than the original while having lesser impact.”
If the original is fondly remembered, it’s because the looseness of the actors and abject trash soundtrack relaxed an audience to where we could enjoy being rolled up with our favorite, collectively remembered underdog clichés. Remake director Zwart, justifying his budget with copious crane shots, hasn’t done anything that would threaten to make this a really new movie—a Karate Kid who stayed in Detroit, for example—while brochure photography, prolonged runtime, and an extra helping of pathos show him groaning toward quality. There is the impression, deadly to the sense of fun, that the talent here actually thought they were remaking a classic.
Functioning in the Mr. Miyagi role, Chan also has decent chemistry with Smith. But things are awkward between Smith and Wenwen Han, the Chinese version of Elisabeth Shue’s Ali-with-an-I. Their ages, her shy demeanour, her English (which is sometimes hard to understand) — all these factors conspire against them, and the film.
The ending is still rousing enough to make the film a crowd-pleaser, though. But after this, hopefully some ’80s classics like “Sixteen Candles,” ”Better Off Dead” and “Revenge of the Nerds” will remain off-limits.
The relocation turns out to make a big difference. “The Karate Kid” is very long ( 2 hours 12 minutes), dramatically thin and unevenly acted, but it was filmed almost entirely in China, mostly Beijing, and it has an unexotic, lived-in sense of place unusual in current Hollywood movies…
…archetypal. And not so terrible, especially for younger children not yet jaded by repeated exposure to triumph-of-the-underdog sports movies. But it should have been better, with a richer sense of the relationships between Dre and the adults in his life, and a sense of cultural curiosity to match the eager geographical exploration.
Some remakes update or reimagine, others Americanize or radically subvert, but The Karate Kid goes about its business as if the 1984 original were somehow obliterated from the earth and the studio needed a reasonable facsimile for its vaults. Then again, it’s been over 25 years since Rocky director John G. Avildsen’s endearing fish-out-of-water drama was a hit, spawning three sequels and cable ubiquity, and for the young people of today, that’s ancient history. Still, the attempt to relocate the action from California (via New Jersey) to Beijing (via Detroit) makes for an awkward translation, quite apart from the problems of trying to bottle the same magic with a lesser cast, a lesser director, and story elements that go bland with reheating. That the film works as well as it does—as an attractive, rousing time-passer for children—speaks more to the endurance of a good formula than its revitalization.
And just for fun: