'The Karate Kid' comes kicking back
The Karate Kid just won the award for surprise of the year. It's good. No, like actually bona-fide good. While remakes of 80s films might be in vogue it's been tough going, but Karate Kid nails it. I might even go so far as to say that it actually nails it as well as the original. Big claim, yes, but when a film has this much fun and then throws in kung fu it's easy to understand why the entire theater was cheering by the end of it.
If you have seen the original The Karate Kid then you know the gist of this movie (and if you haven't you're a 80s movie sinner). A young child, in this case Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), is outcast and picked on until he befriends a kindly karate kung fu teacher, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). The latter helps him learn kung fu in time for the big kung fu tournament against the kids who keep picking on him. Original? No. Cheer worthy sports movie? Beyond a shadow of a doubt.
It's the differences from the original, however, that really elevate The Karate Kid to greatness. Possibly most important is the "karate kid" himself. Smith is fantastic on screen and absolutely oozes the charm and screen presences of his father, Will Smith. In fact there are times when you would be tempted to believe that the younger Smith is actually his father as a child. Whomever he is, he's great on screen and while still a little rough around the edges can obviously handle humor and drama quite adeptly. Thankfully, The Karate Kid allows him to do both and show off his relatively impressive kung fu skills all the while.
This leads us to the second difference: the fighting. This version of The Karate Kid is packed with surprisingly good fight scenes -- or maybe not so surprising. After all, the great Jackie Chan was on the set (he has a very cool fight himself), and much of the crew was Chinese thanks to the fact that the film was actually shot in China. This makes for kung fu fights that are not only fun to watch, but actually well directed and choreographed -- a true rarity for an American kung fu film. And this is kung fu, make no mistake. Where the original Karate Kid went for a slightly more realistic slant to its fights, this new one shoots for impressive moves over reality. That isn't to say wires are being used and people are flying through trees, because they aren't. All the fights are perfectly possible (and Smith went through extensive training to pull them off), but they're definitely not what you would see in reality.
Possibly the most surprising thing in the film is Chan. After a streak of truly bad films he absolutely nails Mr. Han. Not only is Chan's sense of humor and fighting style perfect for the role, but he's finally acting his age. More importantly he's actually acting. If you've seen the original you know that the Mr. Miyagi character has a very emotional scene and Chan handles his version of it impeccably well. It's too bad there aren't more roles for aging kung fu stars because I'm not sure I want to see Chan in anything else after this.
Seriousness aside, since it is such a small part of the film, The Karate Kid is just a blast. It does what all great sports films do and makes you cheer for the good guys and hate the bad guys (arrogant, punk kids are jerks no matter what country you're in). All the while it's paying homage to the original without copying in any straightforward manner, making it one of the few remakes that is its own movie as well. The fact that it is wonderfully shot in China is just an added bonus to a film that will have you pumping your fists in the air in triumph by the end of it. My only real complaint is that "You're the Best" wasn't played once, not even in the credits!