‘The Karate Kid’ (2010) movie review: Jackie Chan in martial arts remake

2010’s The Karate Kid, a remake of John G. Avildsen’s iconic 1984 film, is competently made and executed, with charismatic lead performances by Jackie Chan and (especially) Jaden Smith. But – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – it doesn’t live up to the original. 

As watchable and (at times) likable and even touching as this movie is, it ultimately comes across as bland and disposable entertainment.

It’s not that the material isn’t fresh anymore; it wasn’t fresh in ’84, or even in ’76, when Avildsen made the similarly-plotted Rocky. 2010’s Karate Kid just doesn’t offer up enough personality, it doesn’t strike any resonant pop culture chords. 

There’s nothing like Joe Esposito’s You’re the Best on the soundtrack (its replacement? Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never). No Cobra Kai. No “sweep the leg!” No “wax on, wax off,” though they do try something similar with a jacket. “Drop it. Hang it up. Put it on. Take it off.” I don’t think that’s gonna catch on.

There’s not even any karate here. This version takes place in China, with Mr. Han (Chan) training his young protégé in the art of (of course) kung fu. 

It’s a cash-grab, brand-recognition, our-audience-won’t-even-know thing, but the film would’ve survived better – without such direct comparison to the original – under its working title, The Kung Fu Kid. I’m sure Kung Fu (as in Panda) means more than Karate Kid to the Justin Bieber crowd, anyway.

Jaden Smith (son of Will and Jada Pinkett) stars as Dre Parker, a young grade-schooler who is transplanted from Detroit to Beijing along with his mother (Taraji P. Henson). He doesn’t speak a word of Chinese, but it’s OK, nearly everyone he encounters speaks perfect English. 

He makes a quick American friend upon his arrival (who is never seen again), chats up a pretty local girl (Wenwen Han) at the playground, and then gets the shit kicked out of him by the neighborhood bullies, led by Cheng (Zhenwei Wang in the William Zabka role), who don’t take kindly to his, uh, existence.

The kids here are of the preteen variety, which adds an interesting (if uncomfortable) spin to the violent fight scenes (Ralph Macchio was 22 when the original was released, twice Smith’s age here). The handyman Mr. Han steps in to save Dre from his attackers, which he does by redirecting their punches toward each other. It’s a nice fight scene, surprisingly well-edited, but more than a bit unusual to see the middle-aged Chan disposing of 12-year-olds.

Han visits the bullies’ instructor to make peace, but instead finds John Kreese reincarnated as Master Li (Rongguang Yu), who demands a fight before they can leave – either with him or the boy. Han agrees to train Dre, and have him fight in an upcoming tournament. 

Li (as Kreese was in the original) is the real villain here, but he’s so arbitrarily over-the-top evil he comes across a joke; you wouldn’t believe someone like this could actually become a martial arts instructor, but then again, a similar situation is described in Jessica Yu’s documentary Protagonist.

It might not seem like I have the highest regard for The Karate Kid, but I just can’t help comparing it to the original; while watching the movie, I was stunned at how effective it is (especially considering where director Harald Zwart is coming from, namely The Pink Panther 2). No, this film is fluid and entirely fun despite some length and pacing issues (especially in the second half, following countless training montages).

Chan is good in a more weighty role than usual (though fans take note – he only has the one short fight scene) but he’s overshadowed by the vibrant, good-natured, puppy-dog-eyed Smith, who has all the charisma of his father. 

Cinematography by Roger Pratt is often remarkable; the use of color frequently reminded me of Zhang Yimou.

For a little over two hours, 2010’s Karate Kid works just fine. Anything more than that, however, and you’re asking too much; in a few months time, this will be a forgotten exercise while the 25-year-old original still burns bright.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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