Friday, June 25, 2010

Movie Review: The Karate Kid

Not Karate!

The Karate Kid, directed by Harald Zwart. Screenplay by Christopher Murphey and Robert Mark Kamen. Starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and Taraji P. Henson. Columbia Pictures, 2010. Rated PG. USCCB Rating is A-II--Adults and Adolescents.

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It's been so many years since I saw the original movie, it's hard to make any comparisons, but fortunately I feel no obligation to make comparisons because the remake is competent and enjoyable on its own merits.  The only thing seriously wrong with it is the title.

The story is set in China, making the fish-out-of-water theme from the original a little more intense.  Twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) has moved to Beijing after his mother has been transferred there.  After the necessary introductory awkward cultural misunderstandings, Dre catches the eye of Meiying (Wenwen Han), an up-and-coming violin prodigy who attends the same school as he, and immediately does the obvious thing and begins acting like an obnoxious twelve-year-old with a crush.  That immediately lands him in hot-water with up-and-coming Kung fu prodigy Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who along with an assortment of school bullies sets about making Dre's life in China as miserable as possible.

The eccentric maintenance man and martial artists Han (Jackie Chan) at Dre's apartment rescues him from an after-school beating and helps him confront Cheng's Kung fu master, Li (Rongguang Yu), who turns out to be a jerk, and goads Han into entering Dre in a Kung fu tournament, leaving Han only a short time to make Dre into a competent fighter.

As expected, Han begins by making Dre mundane tasks that later turn out to be martial arts skills.  This segment of the film was a bit dull to me, mostly because I already knew how it would end.  Also, I doubt "Take your jacket off" will ever replace "Wax on!  Wax off!" in the American consciousness.  Subsequent sequences  take advantage of the setting, however; in particular, Han takes Dre to a gorgeous mountaintop temple, and the requisite training montage includes shots of Dre doing things you probably can't actually do in China, such as practicing Kung fu on top of the Great Wall.

The film climaxes with the tournament, which goes more-or-less as it went in the original, so much so that at times it felt as if the actors were just going through the motions, too aware that everyone watching is aware of how it's going to turn out.  Nonetheless, the fight sequences, as we can expect from any movie with Jackie Chan in it, are excellent, though I suspect they draw more from chop-sockey than from real life.  I confess I haven't been to any Kung fu tournaments, but some of those maneuvers looked like the sort of thing that in real life would get a contestant maimed or killed.  And some of those beat-downs should have been saved for the cinematographer, who apparently thinks it's a good idea to film fight sequences with lots of hand-held shots.  Although the action is always great, I couldn't always follow it as easily as I'd like.

Jaden Smith proves himself to be one of the best child actors out there, carrying off his part almost flawlessly.  Jackie Chan, though he has only one fight sequence to call his own (and it's awesome as always), gives what is probably the best acting performance of his career.  Before I entered the theater, I was skeptical about the idea of Chan in a dramatic role, but The Karate Kid made me a believer.  He is good.

The formula is of course familiar, but it's a good formula, and The Karate Kid handles it well with humor, drama, beautiful set pieces, a bit of tear-jerking, and a little action, with heavy doses of father-son-like male-bonding and a dab of romance.  There are certainly worse ways to spend $7.50.
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