In 1984, director John G. Avildsen and writer Robert Mark Kamen presented the world with a coming-of-age story about young high school student named Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) who moved to California and learned karate from kindly handyman Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita).
The Karate Kid was a hit and cultural touchstone for anyone who grew up in the 80s. It produced two sequels (and a third with Hilary Swank replacing Macchio), an animated series, a videogame for the NES, and countless merchandise. It also introduced the world to Elizabeth Shue, earned Morita a best supporting actor nomination, and forever cemented William Zabka (Johnny) in the minds of millions as a total dick.
Twenty-six years later director Harald Zwart and producers Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have remade the film for new audiences (coincidentally also giving their son a star vehicle). The plot is very similar to the original, but includes a few important departures in an attempt to allow the remake to stand on its own. So, how does The Karate Kid compare to the original? Well…
Let’s start with the obvious. This is a movie called The Karate Kid that includes no karate. Doesn’t that seem a bit odd? In terms of martial arts, this film holds its own with kung fu, and while some of the sequences work well how they are presented, at times, is nearly impossible to swallow.
In the original film, Daniel learns the basics of karate though a series of seemingly unrelated menial tasks (waxing a car, painting a fence, and sanding a wooden floor). In the new film, Dre’s (Jaden Smith) initial training includes only one such activity: taking off his jacket, dropping it, and hanging it up (also teaching Dre a lesson about not keeping his clothes on the floor). If the original was a little cheesy, this new version is almost cringe-inducing. The film actually states the following: You can successfully defend yourself from a kung fu master simply by learning how to pick a jacket up off the floor and hanging it up. Thankfully, Dre’s training through the rest of the film is handled with more care.
In one of the changes that works, Dre and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) move from Ohio to China (instead of California). This amps up the culture shock for our main character and provides a great backdrop for the story to unfold.
Dre soon gets picked on for being different. His friendship with a young classical violist (Wenwen Han) angers a group of students led by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) who just happen to study under a merciless hardcore kung fu master who discourages weakness and mercy.
Much like the original movie, Dre’s salvation comes from the unlikely help of his apartment’s maintenance man Mr. Han (Jacke Chan). Far less mysterious than Miyagi (Morita), Chan finds a way to infuse the role with some humor, and the script takes the opportunity to write in a backstory to his character that provides some the film’s most dramatic moments.
Dre is younger and whinier than Daniel. At times you come close to rooting for the bullies to kick his ass. The relationship with his mother is also incredibly hard to watch. My heart goes out to Henson for being wasted on this thankless role of the worrisome parent. (The film even includes yet another trite scene where a mother yells out “I love you” while dropping her child off on the first day at school.) This nature is her only real character attribute, that is at least until the tournament when she roots on her beaten down son and never even considers pulling him from the competition – even after he has suffered a serious injury.
We still get the tournament montage (sadly without Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best”) and the dramatic final confrontation between our hero and his tormentor (though the term “sweep the leg” has been modified). The film’s training montages (not counting the jacket) and the those of the tournament itself are some of the film’s best moments. When the film tries to deal with genuine emotion, awkward young love, and family interaction, and it fails at least as much as it succeeds.
For those who have seen the original, this one will seem a younger, cuter, and dumber version. It’s heart is definitely in the right place but at times its head is stuck firmly up its ass. The film is trapped in trying to stay as true to the original as possible, yet adding several new elements including placing the tale in a foreign land and lowering the ages of all the major characters. Had the film embraced its differences and been more unique, it might have been more successful. Instead, its just a remake no one was clamoring for.
For those seeing the story for the first time it may work better, but still has its share of rough edges including some laughably bad dialogue and an insistence to try and make the young hero seem cool (something the original wasn’t obsessed with). Daniel was brave, but he was never a stud. I can’t quite bring myself to recommend the film, even though it overcomes most of its issues in its second half, but for a new generation this Karate Kid might be just type of film kids today will look back on fondly 26 years from now. Me? I’ll still take the original.