Work causes a single mother to move to China with her young son; in his new home, the boy embraces kung fu, taught to him by a master.
There are certain films that, as a child, you take to your heart and grow up with. For whatever reason - whether it be good triumphing over evil, the battle against adversity, the feeling and optimistic outlook on life you get or the over-explicit morals – they are films that stay with you. They may not be masterclasses in the art of cinema but, they are thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable; The Mighty Ducks, The Goonies, Home Alone, the list goes on. It was the same feeling from the original version of The Karate Kid and it’s also evident in its updated successor.
When Dre Parker’s mother gets a job in China, the two of them uproot from Detroit and move east. Dre (Jaden Smith), who’s without a father figure, finds the culture change hard-going and immediately gets into a confrontation with the school bully (and kung fu prodigy) Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), who chooses Dre to be his punchbag. It doesn’t help that both of them like the same girl, who seems to like Dre more.
As the bullying takes its toll, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a local maintenance man, begins to notice and defends Dre from a particularly vicious attack. When Han confronts the group’s kung fu teacher, he realises – as in the first film – it is the teacher, not the students, that is bad. And this teacher is bad. He drills into his ‘fighting dragons’ to show no mercy and, in order to leave in one peace, Mr. Han agrees to enter Dre into a Kung Fu tournament to get the boys to leave him alone.
Thus, Mr. Han becomes Mr. Miyagi and ‘Shao’ (Little) Dre becomes the reincarnation of Daniel San. There are many similarities and homages to the first film; instead of catching a fly in his chopsticks, Han toys with the idea then swats it against the wall. The infamous, and often parodied, “Wax on, Wax Off” sequence is recreated as “Jacket On, Jacket Off” which works well.
Set in China, the film serves, at times, as an extended tourism brochure, including some of the prominent venues from the Beijing olympics whilst also going for the iconic ‘Great Wall of China’ training moments. China is, of course, the land of kung fu and Dre only knows a small amount of karate, which is where the film name becomes relevant. He is taunted as the “karate kid” whilst being knocked to the floor by Cheng.
Jaden Smith is a revelation. His timing, his dialogue and physical attributes all show that he will surpass the status of just another child star with ease. Perhaps it is because The Smiths would not let that happen (and he hasn’t suddenly been thrust into the limelight with red carpets and flashing lights – he has been there his whole life) but Smith seems to be well schooled in all levels of the game, particularly a trembling lip.
Chan, probably delighted to have the chance to not be dressing as a comedy spy or singing to cradling babies is back to what he knows best. There is a depth not usually seen in Chan, he is perfect for this role and perhaps his light-hearted Hollywood career is taking a more serious turn.
The morals that shape The Karate Kid are more evident than an episode of He-Man or Thundercats, to the point where they may prompt chuckles amongst the audience. The most prominent of which – “When life knocks you down, you have to make a decision whether or not to get back up” – is prevalent in all elements of the tale.
When Slumdog Millionaire was billed as “the feel good movie of the summer”, it felt a bit odd. How could a film that highlights so much poverty and is, at times, heartwrenchingly depressing receive such an optimistic tagline? Well in the case of The Karate Kid, this really rings true. Whether it’s the good v evil, the battling against adversity, the morals or the outlook it leaves you with, it’s just one of those films that stays with you.