Itty-Bitty Brawlers: 'The Karate Kid' (2010) Review
You have to wonder what kind of person it takes to pitch a remake of a cult-classic film. Sure, you have some security on a known property, but you’re taking the gamble of looming in the shadow of greatness versus outright embarrassing yourself. For everyone but the production company, it seems like a no-win situation. Still, sometimes it’s not a path you set out on; branding or someone else makes the allusion for you, such as with the 2010 “reimagining” of The Karate Kid.
Unlike 1984 original, this version follows Jaden Smith as Dre Parker; a 12-year-old boy recently migrated from Detroit to Beijing following his mother’s (Taraji J.Henson) latest job. Dre quickly runs afoul of some local bullies, only to be rescued by the apartment maintenance man, Mr. Han (played by Jackie Chan). But when the pair tries to confront the boys’ trainer, Master Li (Yu Rongguang), he instead insists that Dre fights his star student, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Finding no other alternatives, Han agrees, enrolling the young immigrant in a local Kung Fu tournament.
It’s clear from the get-go that this was never envisioned as a remake, but instead a hasty ploy by someone in marketing to try and get the extra buzz from the branding of the famous trilogy. The only holdover is the bullying plot that resolves in a sparring tournament against an overly-aggressive team – other than that; no details overlap in any meaningful way. Hell, they’re not even practicing the same martial art! It’s a sad move, in hindsight, as it does little to help the film, as it takes so long for one to separate themselves from trying to compare this version with the tale of Daniel and Mr. Miyagi.
That being said, time to let things sink in is not a problem for this film. At nearly two and a half hours, The Karate Kid can be a real slow-burn. Sure, there’s a lot to set up: the move, the bullies, Mr. Han’s backstory, and even a romantic subplot or two; but it seriously doesn’t need all that time. I found myself drifting off to other distractions early in the movie, and I work hard to keep those things away from me when sitting down for a review. I’m sure I could find an easy 20-30 minutes of content to cut without too much trouble – and that’s the worst strike against this movie.
Still, there is a lot to like about this incarnation. Sure, a young Jaden Smith can be a little grating, at times (not to say he ever really grew out of that phase), but he’s putting on a stellar show which, again, could have been helped with a bit of curtailing in some of his jokey or more angsty scenes. The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable, even if the villains are a bit one-dimensional. The real star, though, is Jackie Chan. He’s no Mr. Miyagi, but he knows this, and never tries to be. Instead, he’s a mentor in a different way and makes sure that his scenes play to his quiet strengths and technical prowess as a fighter. That is to say nothing of the scene in which he divulges his tragic history – an interlude which I am not ashamed brought me to actual tears. The pain he emotes is so completely realized and Dre’s attempts to console him so poignant that one cannot help but be drawn into the terrible grief and successful rebuilding in these precious moments.
Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition with last week’s film, but I also found the action scenes in this Karate Kid to be particularly exciting. It’s crazy to think that a legend like Van Damme could be outdone by a bunch of middle schoolers, but even the best moments of Bloodsport don’t have the pop and energy of the most mundane fights here. The actors sell their moves, and with a few bright sound bits and camera cheats, the brawls are all the more believable. But there are parts here that can’t be faked – slams, grapples, and, of course, Jackie Chan’s legendary personal stunts. It might not hold up against The Raid (spoiler alert: that movie is great and you should watch it), but the martial arts on display in The Karate Kid are quite impressive, all said and done.
Despite a rocky start and some other strange little choices, such as an awkward dance scene with Dre’s romantic interest, Meiying (Wenwen Han), 2010’s The Karate Kid pays homage to its predecessor in a strange way. It’s not trying to replace or even ape the 80s classic, but it knows how to show its respects and try to carve out its little slice of the kid action genre. Who knows what fate might have befallen it had the executives just let it be its beast and throw down with the big boys instead of lingering in the shadow of a real master?