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Review: The Karate Kid

Karate-kid-2010 Movie remakes are a tricky thing. Good intentions may be behind all of them, to recreate something classic as an homage to the original, but often egos and misguided artistic visions pervert things along the way.

There's just a lot of emotion involved, particularly with a film like The Karate Kid, which is one of those coming-of-age stories that reverberated with a lot of young people in 1984, including yours truly.

Before I gush about how much I love the original, I want to admit some things. The Karate Kid of 1984 is not without its flaws. Mr. Miyagi is a bit of Asian caricature. And the premise of a person situated as a racial "other" who agrees to tap the secrets of their mystical, ancient culture to help some awkward white folks overcome their challenges in life while they grin proudly and knowingly in the background is not only played out but also just kind of silly when you think about it. Nevertheless, the character of Daniel Larusso spoke to kids, like me, who felt consistently rejected in their social circles and found it within themselves to not only rise above such petty nonsense, but to cast off fears that they could never stand up for themselves. I still tear up a little bit when Daniel-san, despite his swept leg, successfully employs the totally made up Crane Technique to defeat the evil Johnny (who immediately sees the error of his ways through all of the birdies circling his head) and win the tournament. Hey, Mr. Miyagi! We did it!

I showed my son The Karate Kid a few months ago and while I don't think his social awkwardness is as bad as mine was, he was still inspired by Daniel's devotion to becoming a better person, the classic victory of right over wrong, and, hey, he enjoys watching a good ass-kicking. So, with all three members of our family being confirmed Karate Kid fans, it was a given that we were going to see the remake to at least evaluate how it stood up to the original.

When news of the remake started buzzing, there was a lot of justified concern. Is this remake even necessary? And producer Will Smith hasn't been the most consistent artistic force in recent years. Can he handle this project respectfully? And, sorry, but can his kid pull the main character off? Also, isn't it kind of inaccurate to call this movie The Karate Kid when it's set in China where kung fu, not karate, is practiced and, yeah, that's a pretty big detail?* But, in the grand Hollywood tradition, facts will not stand in the way of inspiration and big opening weekends. This remake was coming, ready or not.

We went last night and you know what? We all really, really liked it.

Here's what it is and what it is not. It is not a shot-for-shot recreation. The premise and the story are essentially the same. But it is decidedly its own movie that both heavily and subtly references the original. These references are both sources of material for the new movie and a way of paying respect to the details that made the original such a classic.

Back in 1984, Daniel and his mother moved from economically depressed New Jersey to California, where Mama Larusso was pursuing a career in the relatively new industry of personal computers. (If you listen closely, you'll later hear her say something to Daniel that she's taken a new job at a restaurant because there's no money to be made in computers.) Mr. Miyagi's home, a gem hidden from prying eyes by a tall fence that Daniel famously paints, contains a treasure trove of classic Detroit-made automobiles, a nod to the shifting industries in America. 

In 2010, Dre Parker's (Jaden Smith) mother is transferred from her job at an automobile factory in Detroit to one in Beijing. As she tells her son, homesick and distraught at his inability to fit in, "There's nothing left for us in Detroit." Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the quiet maintenance man in their building, has only one car that he manages to stash in his small living room while he works on repairing it. The universal experience here is that things change and it's difficult, especially for young adolescents who are just naturally having a hard enough time figuring out who they are, to cope. Adults who are still struggling to create their lives in this economy (cough) can also relate. (Oddly enough, right before we went into the movie theater, we stopped at a car cruise across the street at a Fuddrucker's. We drooled over the classic Detroit vehicles, impossibly strong and shiny, testaments to an era gone by. The Fuddrucker's and movie theater are part of a mall that was built upon the ruins of the Homestead Strike. So...yeah.)

Dre meets a nice girl, Meiying, who is a violin prodigy and provides a little more depth to the female supporting character than 1984's Allie, whose sole purpose for existing was to cheer for Daniel and be creeped out by Johnny. Meiying promises to be at Dre's competition and Dre promises to be at her big violin audition. Things are a little more mutual here. But Dre's hopes of becoming friends with Meiying and continuing their adorable, tentative flirtations are foiled by Meiying's family friend, Cheng, and his cronies. Cheng is a bully, trained in the ethos of, "No weakness! No pain! No mercy!" by his douchey and abusive kung fu teacher. This version of the Cobra Kai dojo, now called the Fighting Dragons, is a little more intense and frightening, since the kids are, like, 12 and seem fully capable of snapping a grown man's back in half. However, their attempt at beating the hell out of Dre in a 6-to-1 match in an alley is foiled by Mr. Han, who comes to Dre's aid just in time and manages to defend himself against the bullies in a way that results in them basically just hitting each other. Just in case you were wondering, Dre is not dressed up as a shower in this scene.

The Fighting Dragons' master agrees to prohibit his students from picking on Dre so that he has time to train under Mr. Han's tutelage until the open kung fu tournament. And, well, I probably don't need to tell you the rest of the story.

Jaden Smith is talented and confident in his existing acting abilities and his potential to grow. It is a little disarming at times to see and Will Smith in small mannerisms and voice inflections. Jackie Chan's acrobatic artistry is marvelous to watch, as always, and despite a somewhat uncomfortable emotional scene, fits into the shy character very well.

There are other details that made me smile; Mr. Han waxing his car with what looks to be the same kind of wax that Mr. Miyagi used, the tournament announcer wearing an ill-fitting and cheesy suit...little things that made me realize that the people behind this Karate Kid were as big of fans of the original as I was. I really couldn't be more pleased with the results.

*Apparently, the international title for this movie is The Kung Fu Kid.

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*whispers* Daniel Larusso's gonna fight? *yells* DANIEL LARUSSO'S GONNA FIGHT!!!



I live in Singapore and saw it here. NOT called Kung Fu Kid. Maybe in China? Not so much in my part of Asia.

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