Re-watching the original Karate Kid by way of research for this 2010 update was perhaps a bad idea. This is a remake whose faithfulness and respect for the original is both a great strength and a crucial weakness; it brings back the old debate of whether updates are really a) needed and b) desired. It is ironic that this film, which at times is almost indistinguishable from its predecessor (bar some beautiful new location footage), should take that film’s strengths and somehow labour under them.
But let’s not be too harsh: it should be made clear from the off that this is not a generic update and it is certainly more than a cash-generator. It’s much better than that. In taking the old story of a kid in a new town, struggling to make friends and adapt, who falls under the wing of an old martial arts master and forms a loving bond, the film succeeds. The original, for all its occasionally cheesy 80s trappings and imperfections, was at heart about a relationship that not only worked, but was also touching and believable: that has not changed.
The project has broadened in scope a little since the original. Our hero this time has moved from Detroit to Beijing (as opposed to California from New Jersey) and naturally has trouble adjusting. Then he meets a sweet Chinese girl (Wen Wen Han) who befriends him and the local bullies who will inspire his transformation. Jaden Smith, in the lead role, carries the film adeptly, and his transformation from picked-upon new kid to martial arts hero is arguably more believable than the original film, thanks to a bit more screen time being devoted to training montages, and due to the fact that Smith is, in fact, a kid, whereas Ralph Macchio was well past 20 when he took up the mantle.
The Pat Morita role of ageing maintenance man-cum-martial arts teacher has been taken over by Jackie Chan, an interesting piece of casting that turns out to be one of the film’s strongest decisions. Chan’s is the best performance here, channelling wisdom, charisma and underlying grief in a role that goes against his recently more jovial outings. A surprisingly dark (and welcome) sequence involving a poignant car metaphor is handled well. There is also a nice reference to the original film near the beginning when Chan, chopsticks in hand, proceeds to splat a fly against the wall with a swatter.
So the film carries over the same fundaments that made the original a memorable film, and there is no doubt that for a new generation, this film updates the story nicely. Appreciation of the film will come most strongly from those who have either never seen the original, or who have a nostalgic memory of it locked somewhere in their brains. At times the film is basically a shot for shot, sometimes even line for line mirror of the original, which couldn’t help but feel a little too easy. The bully’s motivation is also not as strong and gets a little lost in the midsection, which has enough to deal with as it is.
That said, the film should be commended for updating the story so well, and for allowing a new generation (who may not be interested in the 1984 original, but might love Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan) to appreciate the timeless story. Add a fourth star if you haven’t seen the original, or if it’s been a long time.