Can I kick it?
Just before the release of The Karate Kid remake, I watched the original again for comparison purposes. While it does have some goofy parts and terrible music, I was reminded of why I liked it so much back in the ’80s. The camaraderie between the student and his teacher is endearing, and that ending is epic. Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) doing his “That’s right, I’m a badass karate teacher!” look before the credits rolled, backed by Bill Conti’s triumphant score, is an all-time great finale.
The enjoyable remake emulates that camaraderie and has an epic ending of its own. Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, replaces the now legendary Ralph Macchio and, let me tell you … Jaden Smith owns it in this movie. We are talking one ass-kicking little Will Smith clone here.
In the original, Macchio’s deceptively pretty boy character was displaced from the East Coast to California. This time out, Jaden Smith’s short but cocky Dre Parker is shipped with his mom (Taraji P. Henson) all the way to China where evil bullies almost immediately besiege him. And we’re not talking American suburban snobs dispatching questionable karate tactics. We’re talking real-deal Chinese children who know deadly kung fu.
Like Macchio, Smith does an excellent job of showing the pain and humiliation of getting one’s ass kicked by nefarious peers. When Smith gets a shellacking for daring to talk to a pretty girl hanging out at the park (the adorable Wenwen Han), you really feel for the kid. He winces so well I was feeling psychosomatic kicks to my kidneys, although that could’ve been the result of too much sweet tea.
Enter this film’s version of Mr. Miyagi. Jackie Chan plays Mr. Han, the maintenance man, and Chan has never been this dramatically powerful in a movie. He has a scene where he recounts a personal tragedy that is, honestly, one of the more heartfelt moments in a movie this year. On top of that, he gets to throw a bunch of vicious kids around in a scene that isn’t as strange as it sounds. Hey, these kids are so athletically awesome, you believe they pose a serious physical threat to Mr. Han.
Mr. Han, of course, agrees to teach kung fu to young Dre. Instead of “Wax on, wax off!” and “Paint the fence!” we get “Hang up jacket, throw it down, put it on!” which winds up being an equally cool tutorial trick. Before long, young Dre is doing 90-degree kicks and proving himself a credible opponent for the bullies in the big kung fu tournament. All the while, Chan and Smith create a bond worth rooting for.
It’s during this tournament that it becomes evident that this Karate Kid is a little more convincing than the first incarnation when it comes to the fight stuff. Smith actually gets himself to a physical level where he looks intimidating in action. Honestly, it’s easier to buy a kid getting into tournament-ready shape after being trained by Jackie Chan than Arnold from Happy Days. The kung fu choreography is much better here—none of that kicking-crane crap.
Smith not only has a physical similarity to his infamous pop, but he’s also inherited Will’s comic timing. When he says, “That’s nasty!” after Mr. Han swats a fly, you know without a doubt that he is his father’s son. Hearing him trade musical licks with Justin Bieber during the credits only adds to the vibe.
The movie is nearly two and a half hours long. It drags in spots and is formulaic at times, but, for the most part, it uses its time well. I’m a fan of the original, but I’m going to declare this one better than the original in many ways. While I was done with the Macchio version after the first installment—the sequels SUCKED!!!—the continuing story of Dre and Mr. Han is an appealing notion. Send them to America, send them to the moon … I don’t care. Just make some sequels because Chan and Smith kick some ass.