The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of The Karate Kid was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
As a general rule, I think remakes are a bad idea. There are so many great original scripts floating around that it is a sign of cowardice on the part of the studios that they constantly turn to the past instead of embracing new ideas. That being said, I took an oath to judge films solely on their own merits. As far as I’m concerned, the 2010 version of The Karate Kid is a solidly entertaining film that exists in a vacuum where Ralph Macchio’s career never showed a spark of promise.
Dre (Jaden Smith) is a twelve-year-old from Detroit who gets moved against his will to Beijing, when his mother (Taraji P. Henson) gets transferred by her company. The proverbial stranger in a strange land, Dre tries to fit in by playing basketball at a park with some local kids and a few other American transplants. Embarrassed by his lack of skills on the court, he makes up for it by flirting very successfully with Meiying (Wenwen Han). This rubs the local bully, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), the wrong way. Their confrontation ramps up quickly and before you can say black eye, Cheng introduces Dre to his fists of fury. This cycle of bullying and fighting continues until Cheng goes too far. Ready to go past a simple beating into brutal violence, Cheng is stopped at the last second by Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the quiet maintenance man in Dre’s building.
You probably know the rest of the story.
This is a surprisingly good underdog story, with the bulk of the film carried on the backs of Smith and Chan. Thankfully, they have a nice chemistry together. Smith is likable and fairly natural for a child actor. Chan, never known for his restraint, turns in a nicely reserved performance, resisting the urge to mug for the camera. The subtlety he shows in the rest of the film lends weight to his inevitable “big emotion” scene.
While the two stars are given plenty of material to work with, the supporting cast is asked to do nothing more than play a type. Henson, an actress who has shown herself to be capable of great work, is wasted in her generic role as Dre’s frazzled single mom. The same can be said for Wenwen Han and Zhenwei Wang. She’s asked to do nothing more than be cute, while he’s expected to lurk around the background looking menacing. To their credit, they both do their jobs well.
The film makes up for some of this character underdevelopment by taking full advantage of its Chinese settings. Whether incorporating shots of the Great Wall during the inevitable training montage (thankfully accompanied by a tastefully uplifting James Horner score, not a cheesy power-pop anthem) or sending the characters on trips to The Forbidden City and a picturesque mountaintop temple, no postcard shot is left off the screen.
At nearly two and a half hours, the film could use some serious trimming in the third act. Where the first two acts move at a leisurely pace, allowing time for Dre and Mr. Han to convincingly bond, the third act feels rushed. With its over-the-top, video game-inspired, kung fu tournament and contradictory message that violence never solved anything, unless it’s committed during an organized kung fu tournament, the film devolves into the silly cheese that it avoided for most of the running time.
But, powered by two good acts and winning performances by Smith and Chan, The Karate Kid pulls off a family film that kids and parents can watch together without anyone involved losing brain cells. Just be prepared to avoid all the kids attempting high kicks in the theater lobby on your way to the exit.
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