The Karate Kid
Directed by Harald Zwart. Starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Han Wenwen, Yu Rongguang, Wu Zhensu, Wang Zhenwei. (2010, PG, 140 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 18, 2010
John G. Avildsen's 1984 original has become, in the fullness of time, a genuine pop-cultural touchstone. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that at the time, the younger stratum of the American zeitgeist hadn't yet discovered, much less gorged itself on, the Pan-Asian wonders of Jackie Chan, John Woo, and kung fu, much less our current and ongoing fascination with Japanese manga and animé. (That is, other than fans of David Carradine's Seventies-era ABC television show, and, for those lucky enough to live in large metropolitan areas, the occasional Shaw Brothers chopsocky smackdown.) Pat Morita's Oscar-nominated performance as the inscrutably wise gardener/mentor Mr. Miyagi remains one of the Eighties' most delicately forceful (and downright funny) displays of creative subtlety in a smart and knowing film that also happened to become a cultural sensation. The intense remake by Zwart (One Night at McCool's) isn't likely to take the gleam off Avildsen's Kid, but it's directed with sympathetic panache and arrestingly shot on location in China with an eye toward the epic by Roger Pratt (12 Monkeys, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). It also benefits tremendously from Christopher Murphey's deliberate and fine script, which takes its time setting up the story and then hits all the right beats until it slips up in a puddle of sappiness mere minutes before the end of the film's lengthy running time. Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, is fine and realistically precocious as 12-year-old Dre, who finds himself in Beijing after his mother (a smart, sassy, entirely momworthy performance from Henson) is transferred from their hometown of Detroit. Buffeted by the twin storms of culture shock and puberty in this strange new world, Dre immediately starts crushin' on teen violin prodigy Meiying (Han), unaware that this will incur the wrath of a gang of kung fu-adept bullies, led by Cheng (a fearsome Wang). Enter the dragon in the form of Mr. Han (Chan), the taciturn super of Dre's crumbly new apartment. Chan does some of his most nuanced work in ages here; a scene in which the mentor's personal demons are allowed to break through his everyman mask is arguably the best piece of actual acting he has ever done in an American film. It's not nearly as exhilarating as his Drunken Master turns or as goofily charming as his role in Rob Minkoff's recent The Forbidden Kingdom, but it is Kleenex-worthy, and when was the last time you could say that about a Jackie Chan performance? As in the original, the outcome is never in doubt (and James Horner's soppy score doesn't help things a bit), but this new Karate Kid is, in the end, a winning update of a classic piece of Eighties' filmmaking, and that in itself is something of a coup.
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