Harald Zwart’s The Karate Kid retread grossed an insane amount of money this past weekend, proving just how conservative the American movie-going public is leaning these days. The film destroyed Joe Carnahan’s other 1980’s remake The A-Team by more than a 2-1 margin, a development that left Hollywood insiders scratching their heads. But this outcome makes perfect sense considering the kinetic anarchy of The A-Team and the overgrown sentimentality of The Karate Kid. One film kicks you in the head while the other kicks you in the heart, and this day in age of disastrous oil spills, economic uncertainty, and political unrest, it’s not hard to see why the numbers swayed toward the latter.
The Karate Kid functions first and foremost as a vehicle for young Jaden Smith (Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s son) who plays Dre Parker, a born and bred Detroit youth displaced to Beijing after his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) finds a new job in the expanding Chinese economy. Smith occupies every scene, admirably injecting a believable and layered persona into a potentially cliche character. His expectations of childhood are thrown out the window, and his simultaneous excitement and hatred for new experiences is spot on adolescence.The actor handles the stress of carrying a movie with ease, but the surrounding cinematic parts are anything but seamless.
After a rainy but hopeful American-set prologue, Zwart pushes his characters into the bustling Chinese landscape, a scattered vision of clogged streets, post-Olympic growth, and sizable wonder, an environment Dre immediately rebels against. Dre’s journey to enlightenment begins as most of this kind do – with ignorance and arrogance. Dre is uninterested in learning the language but willing to take on a trio of thuggish Chinese tweens, further exemplifying the American stereotype of shoot first and ask dumb questions later. And his seemingly torturous existence comes to a head when his bully’s corner Dre in a deserted courtyard, ready to give the boy another patented karate beat down. Enter Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a maintenance worker/ Kung-fu master who defends Dre in an exciting dance of defense as offense. Their relationship of hero and mentor is cemented, and the rest of The Karate Kid follows their inevitable shared growth together.
The Karate Kid finds a beautiful focus during the training scenes, as Mr. Han teaches Dre about patience, respect, and determination through martial arts. But there’s not nearly enough time spent on this dynamic, and in turn it’s hard to believe Dre comes close to achieving this sort of mastery in such a small amount of time. Unfortunately, the film expands to include many different inconsequential story lines, becoming a bloated behemoth of false sentiment during extended sequences in the second act. Mr. Han’s back-story, Sherry’s lack of significance, and Dre’s repetitive interactions with his tormentors are poorly handled, and Zwart never finds a stylistic equivalent for the many thematic concerns at work. By the time Dre’s climbs the Kung-Fu tournament ladder, an almost direct rip-off of Ralph Macchio’s improbable ascent in 1984, the film has folded onto itself so many times the rousing climactic denouement makes little impact.
In the end, all the East meets West/fish out of water familiarity overwhelms any sense of charm the many impressive actors bring to the proceedings. The Karate Kid takes 140 long minutes to tell the simple story of a boy overcoming his doubts about change, and the sappy cinematic indulgence is painted on every smile, redemptive hug, and high five. The simplicity of Dre’s easy dominance over Chinese culture, romance, and prowess becomes ridiculous, an inversion of the original film’s whole purpose. As opposed to the unfairly maligned A-Team film, which proudly descends into cinematic debauchery tongue firmly in cheek, The Karate Kid manages to turn 1980’s nostalgia into modern Hollywood mediocrity, an American blowhard attempting to convince its Chinese master that our crane-kick is better than yours. It isn’t.