Monday, June 14, 2010
If you lived through the 1980s or have even the slightest inkling of affection for 1980s popular culture, then for you this past weekend is either incredibly exciting or excruciating, as two major pillars of that decade are getting the 21st-century Hollywood makeover. I am here however to speak only about the one that, at least to me, seemed the most unnecessary of the two, a revamped “Karate Kid” with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith doing their best Mr. Miyagi and Ralph Macchio impersonations, respectively. And while I may have remained a tad jaded about this film’s potential for success, I can wholeheartedly say that this incarnation of “The Karate Kid” is among the better films I’ve seen this year.
The film is set in China, where a young boy named Dre (Smith) and his widowed mother (Taraji P. Henson) are forced to move to after the automotive company Dre’s mom works for assigns her a new job there. Obviously, the move is hard on the two of them, particularly Dre, who struggles not only with making friends and finding TV shows not broadcast in China’s native tongue but also with a small yet ruthless gang of schoolyard bullies who know a thing or two about kung fu (yes, this film’s martial art of choice is kung fu not karate, as the film’s title suggests, but I can forgive this particular instance of studio adherence to the brand name). During an exceptionally rough encounter between Dre and the gang of bullies, Mr. Han (Chan), the maintenance worker for the apartment in which Dre lives, steps in to save Dre. Turns out Mr. Han is secretly a master at Kung Fu (not to mention he can speak English fluently), and while he is at first reluctant to teach young Dre, circumstances find Dre agreeing to fight the gang of boys who’ve been terrorizing him in an open Kung Fu Tournament and Han has no choice but to teach the boy all he knows, which is not a small order.
While the set-up I just gave you might not sound too enticing, it’s the execution and not the admittedly formulaic story structure that makes this film work. The script is smart enough to take its time with things,allowing the audience to truly get to know these people so that what happens to them comes across as organic and ultimately affecting. Certainly the casting helps as Smith brings the right amount of humor, charm, and heart to the character while Chan accomplishes something I’ve rarely seen him do in any film before: act. I can sincerely say I never thought I’d see the day that a Jackie Chan performance could cause me to break a tear or two, but Chan brings such a wonderful sense of warmth, wisdom, and, most importantly, humanity to his role and it’s all the better for it. Admittedly, there are moments that veer a bit more towards the cliché and it hurts the film a bit considering just how surprisingly solid the rest of this film is.
Yet “The Karate Kid” (rated PG for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language) remains a thoroughly entertaining and effective film that manages to defy the conventional wisdom concerning most modern day remakes and reboots. And, frankly, that’s something worth celebrating in this current cinematic climate.
-Michael Shymon just finished his freshman year at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he's studying Film & Television Production. He's hoping one day all this movie watching will finally pay off. While he's home for summer break in San Diego, he'll be resuming his duties as a KPBS Teen Critic.