MOVIE REVIEW: The Karate Kid


Over the course of the many movies I see every year, I have developed a love-hate relationship with the marketing of motion pictures.  I am a sucker for an eye-catching poster and easily fall for the hype of a well-made teaser or preview trailer.   It is so much so that I will help the marketing do its job by sharing said trailer on my Facebook page and talking about it with "Did you see that?!" exuberance to anyone who will listen.  I'm a fan and I gladly get caught up in the hype.

So often, though, either the marketing gives away too much of a movie or the trailer creates so much hype the the final product can't live up to it.  We can all name a movie that became predictable from the two minute trailer or a movie where the only funny parts were in the trailer.  (On a side note, for me that movie will always be Nacho Libre.  Great marketing, terrible movie!)  For as much as I like a good preview, I can't blame those people one bit who never want to see previews or even read reviews like mine.  They want to be surprised and figure things out for themselves. All of this brings me to The Karate Kid remake and how it debuted head-to-head with The A-Team on June 11th. 

When I heard The Karate Kid was being remade, I thought why and how bad of an idea it was.  Didn't they over-milk it with the original and two terrible sequels?  Can anything really recreate the "You're the Best" 80's cheesiness?  When I saw it starring Jackie Chan, I immediately thought of his goofball persona in most of his movies and how he can't play a serious part.  When they decided on the very non-teenage Jaden Smith and to move the setting to China, I thought too young, too much fatherly Will Smith influence, and where they are going to find Japanese karate in the kung-fu nation of China.  The director they hired, Harald Zwart, responsible for the terrible trio The Pink Panther, Agent Cody Banks, and One Night at McCool's, could no way get close to the original's John Avildsen, the Oscar-winning director of Rocky, right?

Four weeks ago, when The Karate Kid debuted, you couldn't pay me to see it and skip The A-Team. In going back to my discussion from that review about remakes, The A-Team had everything I wanted.  While that movie was awesome, I was stunned when The Karate Kid nearly doubled The A-Team's box office after their opening weekend showdown.  After good word of mouth and some decent reviews, I warmed to the idea of grumbling my way through it.  I sit here writing this review completely blown away! 

The Karate Kid proved every pessimistic expectation I had from the marketing and production wrong.  Even with a long 140 minute running time (right there with Robin Hood), your watch will stop and the time will breeze by.  After Toy Story 3, this is the best family film so far this year.  Boy, was I wrong and so pleasantly surprised!

From a story standpoint, they didn't do that much.  Especially after going back and watching the original, you will notice that the new movie might as well be a scene-for-scene, line-for-line reshoot of the original with modern changes.  Newark is traded for Detroit.  California is now overseas in China.  Our Italian hero (Ralph Macchio as Daniel) is now black (Jaden Smith as Dre), and our old karate mentor/handyman (Pat Morita in his Academy Award-nominated performance) is exchanged for a kung-fu mentor/handyman (Jackie Chan).  We still get a band of martial art bullies, losing fights, a love interest, and character-building training for a tournament.  Everything, though slightly changed, feels very familiar, but it works and creates an inspiring, rousing, and powerful result. 

The performances add to the surprise.  Jaden Smith, though younger than the original high school role, plays the student with a good sense of wonder and vulnerability.  He is a chip off the old block and has every ounce of his famous father's charm and swagger, even at his young age.  We will be seeing his name in lights for a very long time.  Taraji P. Henson plays the most realistic African-American mother I have seen in a movie this side of a Tyler Perry movie.  She's strong, encouraging, but is so accurately quick to dish out a little discipline in a part that normally would be the thankless and throwaway parent role.

As if Jaden Smith isn't a big enough discovery, Jackie Chan takes his acting and the movie itself to another level with his portrayal of Mr. Han.  After years of groan-inducing Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon movies, I never thought he could effectively play a dramatic role as an actor.  Everyone knows he has the physical chops to play, show, and teach kung-fu, but Jackie shows his age here (He is 56) and leaves the usual comedy at home.  It's a serious part and he nails it.  In my opinion, he should be in the running for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination, just as Pat Morita did in 1984.

Why even a remake of The Karate Kid works (even if it should have stuck with its intended name of The Kung-Fu Kid, but, again, it gets to market a name commodity) is because everyone loves a good underdog story.  From Rocky to Rudy to The Karate Kid and all the way to Glory or Remember the Titans, audiences love the chance to root for the little guy or the oppressed.  I have seen The Karate Kid now twice and, at both times, people were cheering in the audience.  That's a great feeling to have at a movie.

LESSON #1: WHEN LIFE KNOCKS YOU DOWN, WE HAVE TO CHOOSE TO GET BACK UP-- This is the moral theme spoken by the characters in the film and it's very true to life.  The movie spells this one out very well and it's their lesson to tell.

LESSON #2: DEALING WITH BULLYING-- We've all been there.  We've all been in a situation, whether it's physical, verbal, psychological, or even cyber-bullying that there are lot of ways to deal with bullies.  As a school teacher myself, I see it all the time and I think the answer is to earn respect.  Sometimes, that's by being stalwart, peaceful, and not stooping to the bully's level.  Yet, sometimes, even as a teacher, confrontation can be the only answer.  Might as well meet a great mentor in martial arts and take care of business.  Just Google those guys.  They're around, right?

LESSON #3: TEACHERS TEACH THEIR STUDENTS BEYOND THE CURRICULUM, WHATEVER IT MAY BE-- I don't care if it's karate, kung-fu, swimming lessons, or kindergarten.  A good teacher brings life lessons to their work and better their students as people as much as he or she betters their intellect and skill.

LESSON #4: STUDENTS TEACH THEIR TEACHERS TOO-- At the same time and, again, I don't care what the subject, skill, or discipline being taught, students rub off on their teachers and teach them a little something too.  For as much as Mr. Miyagi teaches "Daniel-son" and Mr. Han teaches "Shou-Dre," the student can change a teacher's life as much as a teacher can change theirs.