We all remember the classic underdog film from 1984. Then it was awkward child star Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita in the lead roles. It was a coming-of-age story that taught some valuable lessons about discipline and patience. It was an immediate classic that pulled in a much more than respectable $90 million at the box office. It spawned three sequels which did not do near as well as the original. Now we find ourselves in an age where just about any movie ever made has to be remade/reimagined/rebooted/ or merely capitalized upon. Should there have been a new Karate Kid?
The box office would indicate that the move was a good one. The take was nearly double that of the original film. You also have to remember that 16 years have come and gone and $176 million doesn’t buy you what it used to. Still, it’s a huge number for a remade film, so I suspect the folks behind the film feel justified. Don’t be surprised to see another group of sequels to follow.
The idea might be the same, but this is a very different story. Dre Parker (Smith) and his Mom (Henson) leave their home in Detroit and move to China. Dre’s father died recently, and now the two are on their own. Mom looks at the move as a chance for the two to start over. For Dre that is far easier said than done. He doesn’t fit in with the culture, and he is bullied by the kids at school. His number one nemesis appears to be a martial arts student named Cheng (Wang). Cheng studies under Master Li (Yu) who does not teach the traditional peaceful ways of the martial arts. He teaches his students to feel no pain and to show no mercy whether it be in competition or life. Cheng practices this philosophy completely on Dre. When their landlord Mr. Han (Chan) observes the bullying, he eventually decides to lend a hand. He’s a tortured man who is paying for a tragic mistake with his guilt. It has dominated his life. He normally isn’t going to be the kind of guy who gets involved. But he’s moved by Dre’s plight. The two confront Master Li who promises to order his students to let up on Dre, but only while he trains. He must show his courage at an upcoming Kung Fu tournament. Han agrees to train the boy for the event. Remember the “Wax on. Wax off” and “Paint the fence” tedious tasks from the first film? Now it’s “Jacket on. Jacket off. Hang up jacket. Put jacket on floor. Pick up jacket.” Of course, Dre soon discovers that this task he thought was merely to teach him to respect his mother has built strength in his arms and has provided muscle memory for important fight moves.
Many of the same ideas from the original film survive here. It also doesn’t hurt to have Jackie Chan in the mix. The end result is a pretty good film. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious flaws.
The film takes entirely too long to develop. The running time is an over-long two hours and twenty minutes. The first hour is spent in build-up before Han and Dre ever begin to get involved. I know they wanted to develop the character, but they put too much pressure on Jaden Smith to carry a film while the audience is waiting ever more impatiently for the Chan to start. You just can’t tease Jackie Chan for an hour and expect to keep your audience from getting restless. I suspect this is the result of having Smith’s parents as producers of the film. The time should have been used to lay more of a foundation between the two characters. Instead, it’s all about Smith, and Chan is relegated to a few cameo-like flashes.
Once the film gets going, the entertainment value increases greatly. Chan and Smith do develop some solid chemistry, but never what we saw in the original. The film is also much larger in scope. The entire movie is filmed on location in China. Chan appears so much more at home and plays a much more complicated character than we’re used to seeing. He really doesn’t get to fight much, so Chan has to use those acting muscles a bit more than he is used to. It was a good part for him, because we truly do see a side of the action hero that I’ve never quite seen before. The China locations include some training moments on the Great Wall and a climb up the 2,000 steps of the Wudang Mountain to drink from the Well Of The Dragon, which is believed to make the combatant invincible. That probably accounts for the stretch of credibility the film’s climax provides. I kind of wish they had gone for the less predictable ending here. I find it hard to believe that a young kid with no martial arts experience can take on kids who were raised on the skills. Of course, it’s all about the moral here, and I guess I can be OK with it. I just would have liked to see this movie show that there is no shame in losing once you’ve risen to the occasion. It’s an equally valuable point that Han makes several times in the film. It would have been nice to have seen it in practice. There is a side story where Dre falls for a young Chinese girl and attempts to impress her. She’s a violin prodigy trying to get into the Beijing Academy of Music. Dre points out that their initials spell BAM. And, of course, there is the expected Rocky-style training montage.
The Karate Kid is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average of about 20-25 mbps. The film makes excellent use of its China locations. Many of these exterior scenes are shot with an eye toward majestic splendor. The wide vistas offer a sharp and natural image with plenty of detail. Colors care never really very bright, but they do look natural. There are moments of color explosion, most notably the climactic conclusion. The red robes of the “bad guys” really pop. There’s a lot of solid contrast on display during those moments. There’s plenty of time where the image is soft and somewhat muted. These are mostly interior scenes or the training montage moments. Chan’s clothes are always a bit dull. Black levels are excellent and provide more than adequate shadow definition. It’s a perfect example of a modern film presented in high definition.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does a very good job of putting the listener in the correct space. The audio is tight in close quarters and wide in the many vista shots. The most aggressive use of surrounds comes at the tournament where crowd noises spread around you, placing you directly inside the arena. The James Horner score was also a pleasant surprise here. It shines at just the right moments to build some emotional cue and then disappears into the background like a thief in the night.
Alternate Ending: (3:32) This is a much better ending than you’ll find in the film. Chan gets to mix it up with Master Li.
On Location: This is an interactive map that lets you select a China location and see a short feature on it from the film.
Production Diaries: (29:44) This is a series of 9 features usually 3-4 minutes in length. They profile actors/characters, showcase the locations, and look at the director as he scouts locations.
Music Video: (3:49) Justin Bieber and Jaden Smith rap “Never Say Never”.
Just For Kicks – The Making Of Karate Kid: (20:09) There’s a lot of cross-over here from the production diaries. Jerry WeinTraub who was a producer on both films talks about the wisdom of remaking the film. He was very skeptical at first but now believes he was wrong. I wouldn’t go quite that far.
I ended up with very mixed emotions about this film. It’s worth taking a look, to be sure. There are certainly aspects in which it rises above the original film, but do these epic proportions take away a little of the spirit of the material? I think they do. I love Chan, but there’s not enough of him here to call this a Jackie Chan film. During the opening credits I was a bit miffed that Smith got top billing over Chan. My wife reminded me that the name of the film was The Karate Kid, but I think it has more to do with a powerful father and an over-indulgence to showcase the young actor. In the end, I think I still lean toward the original. This one tries to do too much. Someone forgot the real spirit behind the source material. Hey guys, “Your focus needs more focus”.