Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010, Harald Zwart)

Am I strange for thinking this works better than the original? I watched John G. Avildsen’s 1984 take on this story not too long ago, and aside from the character of Mr. Miyagi, I found it pretty creaky. But its formula was pretty solid- new kid in town gets beaten up by martial-arts-practicing bullies, gets training from a mysterious master/handyman, and gets back at them in the ring. Granted, it’s not exactly a sophisticated story arc, which is part of the reason it’s more effective when the hero and his nemeses are in their early teens rather than nearing their high school graduation. Likewise, it’s more believable that these villains could be manipulated by their instructor, considering how hormone-addled and insecure boys tend to be at this age, grasping at anything that makes them feel tough and in control.

Of course, a drawback to the change in age is that it can be a little difficult to watch little Jaden Smith get the tar kicked out of him early in the movie, but Smith, small of build but full of attitude, is more believable as someone who would run afoul of bullies than affable goofball Ralph Macchio. It’s too soon to tell whether Smith is more than a talented child actor, but he’s definitely got presence to burn, not to mention his father’s natural charm and ease in front of the camera. His teacher, Mr. Han, lacks the self-aware eccentricities of Pat Morita’s Miyagi, but Jackie Chan’s uncharacteristically low-key performance is good nonetheless, and Chan and the filmmakers deserve credit for not simply trying to make him another Miyagi. And Taraji P. Henson doesn’t get much to do as Smith’s single mom, but she makes the character work.

Having transported the story to China, Karate Kid 2010’s titular martial art has been replaced by kung fu. And while the climactic fights are just as effective as those in the original- they’d be even better if not for the use of a distracting Jumbotron- Mr. Han’s unconventional teaching method of “hang up the jacket” just doesn’t have the same magic as “wax on, wax off” and “paint the fence.” But for the most part, the new Kid doesn’t screw up what worked in the original, while finding ways to change the formula mostly for the better. It’s not great art, but it’s solid entertainment, especially if you’ve got an age-appropriate kid who’ll respond to what the movie is selling. I’m surprised to find myself not so much dreading the inevitable sequel so much as wondering where they’ll take the franchise from here. Jaden Smith meets Tony Jaa in The Muay Thai Kid, anyone?

Rating: 6 out of 10.

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