Movie Review: The Karate Kid

Mildly political, mostly enjoyable, overly long remake

Jaden Smith does a rather excellent line in world weary expressions. And since there’s no way he can possibly be drawing on personal experience given that he’s a) twelve and b) the son of one of the richest men in Hollywood, there’s no choice but to conclude that, despite all likely prejudice, the kid can really act.

Smith plays Dre Parker, a fatherless child who moves to China with his mother, and struggles to fit in, falling afoul of the local kids who, as expected, use him as a punching bag, deflating his irritating American bravado to zero. He meets a cute local girl he wants to impress, and a morose handyman (Jackie Chan) he persuades to teach him the art of kung fu, and…well, you know the rest.

So far, so original Karate Kid. Producer Jerry Weintraub, who was responsible for the first trilogy, sticks fairly faithfully to the framework of the past – there’s actually little to distinguish between the two films emotionally, except that the protagonist is much younger, we’ve gone to China and Karate, Japanese in origin, is replaced by Kung Fu, the martial art of choice in China.

Keeping comparisons to a minimum, this is a competent and enjoyable film in its own right, the essence of the original being the cultivation of a father/son relationship and the moral platitudes of respect and mercy holding fast in the remake. The updated Miyagi, now Mr Han, is perhaps a little overplayed by Chan who still struggles with English, but the interaction between him and his protégé is as watchable as it ever was. And, in keeping with the trend for remakes to mock themselves, there’s a lovely scene which recalls the first film in which the handyman takes on a buzzing fly, with laugh out loud results.

What adds splash of intrigue to The Karate Kid is trying to guess exactly what was in the contract between Weintraub and the Chinese minister for Culture that allowed the film to be shot there in the first place. Perhaps there was a clause that allowed filming if the studio showed China at its most beautiful and imposing – hence three separate training montages, which is two too many. But hey, you get to see one of them happening on the Great Wall of China, and the cinematography is as spectacular as the scenery. Its an uneasy symbiotic relationship, but at least we get to see China at its most glorious.

But the film gets its own back, albeit subtly. Hoards and hoards of menacingly red-clad children training in dojo’s in a suspiciously military-style way? Way to tap into fears that the world’s newest superpower is training their young to take over the world, Jerry. It’s rather endearing really – big budget films from the US have always used cinema to take a sly pop at whichever world power was threatening their dwindling autonomy, and now that the Russians have slunk away, it’s clearly China’s turn.

That said, there’s far too much of everything. It’s at least an hour too long, and at one point, I heard myself muttering “Just bring on the tournament!”. It’s much more trying to sit through montage after filler montage when you know exactly where the film is heading. And considering they’ve upped the ante with all the other aspects of the film – the genuinely exciting Crouching Tiger style fight sequences, the razor sharp choreography, the mostly-decent script, a soundtrack that makes inspired use of ACDC’s Back in Black to introduce the tournament – it’s a shame the enjoyment is dimmed by such self indulgent editing.