film review: The Karate Kid

In today’s risk-averse movie business, we’re seeing more remakes than ever, including retreads of films that don’t seem that old (to some of us). After a screening of the new Karate Kid I asked a couple of ten-year-old boys if they knew the 1984 movie, and they did, thanks to DVDs and cable TV reruns. Interestingly enough, neither one wanted to compare one version with the other: they like them both. I do, too.

The original Karate Kid, written by Robert Mark Kamen and directed by John Avildsen (in the same mold as his first smash hit, Rocky), was a shamelessly manipulative but well-told story, perfectly cast, with Ralph Macchio as a boy who needs to learn how to defend himself and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita as his unlikely mentor in martial arts, Mr. Miyagi. (In real life, Macchio told me the other night, Morita “couldn’t touch his toes.”)

That premise is the only tangent that connects the 1984 hit and its new incarnation, written by Christopher Murphey and directed by Dutch ex-pat Harald Zwart, whose previous American credits include—

—such undistinguished fare as Agent Cody Banks and The Pink Panther II. This expert, if overlong, piece of entertainment is likely to propel both men to the front ranks of commercial moviemaking. It’s a winner.

A great deal of credit goes to the film’s two stars. Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s 11-year-old son, reveals a level of charisma and screen presence that was only hinted at when he appeared with his father in The Pursuit of Happyness. It’s often been said that juvenile performances can be cobbled together in the editing room; I don’t think that’s the case here. This young man has what it takes.

Jackie Chan is likable and persuasive as his teacher, an introverted maintenance man at the Beijing apartment building where Smith and his mom (Taraji P. Henson) come to live after leaving Detroit behind. Chan’s character undergoes as great a transformation as Smith’s in this screenplay, and it’s enjoyable to watch because he is such an appealing actor—and still supple enough to kick butt when the occasion demands.

The new Karate Kid takes its time establishing its story building-blocks, and stretches out its climax, with a kung fu tournament that’s much more violent and bone-crunching than the one I remember from the first movie and its two sequels. The underlying messages of courage and honor still come through, although they’re a bit muddy at times.

What matters most in a film like this is rooting interest, and that is firmly established and well played out, with appropriate doses of villainy and puppy love. The most important new ingredient is the Chinese setting, and Smith’s position as a fish out of water dealing with a country, and culture, he doesn’t know or understand.

I could find nits to pick, but they pale alongside this film’s exuberance and entertainment value for a broad audience. The Karate Kid deserves the success it’s bound to enjoy.

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February 2024