Despite (or perhaps because of) a certain temporal, dawn-of-the-MTV-era cheesiness, The Karate Kid has become a fondly remembered classic of ’80s cinema. It spawned several sequels, frequent shouts of “Sweep the leg!” and is now responsible for a 21st century series reboot. Like all nostalgic reboots (an update of The A-Team also hits theaters this weekend, for crying out loud), it’s hard to tell if the world really needs this new version. Probably not, but we're stuck with it. So, let’s examine what we’ve got.
The 2010 version of The Karate Kid has been conceived of as a vehicle for Will Smith's skinny offspring Jaden (who last appeared with his pops in The Pursuit of Happyness). Turns out the film is less of a remake and more of a continuation of the original’s themes with totally different characters and settings. (Let’s call it Yet Another Karate Kid instead.) Jaden plays Dre Parker, a 12-year-old wimp whose mom gets reassigned to a new job in Shanghai. (Do a lot of non-Mandarin-speaking single moms from inner-city Detroit get transferred to Mainland China? ... I don’t know. I’m just asking.) As in the original, our main character finds himself the target of bullies at school and eventually comes under the tutelage of a wise old Asian martial arts master (Jackie Chan in this version). ... OK, let’s stop right there. Karate is a Japanese form of martial arts. The Chinese practice is called kung fu. And in this version of the story, we have an American kid being taught Chinese martial arts by a Chinese teacher. In China. So, to reiterate, there is no karate whatsoever in this version of The Karate Kid. Got it? Moving on.
The film proceeds in more or less the same manner as the original. The hero gets punched about, the grumpy old Asian dude refuses to help for a while, eventually relenting and putting his little protégé through a training regimen that consists of 90 percent boring repetition. The film replaces the original’s “wax on, wax off” mantra with a more realistic, but even more dull “take jacket off, hang jacket up, put jacket on” routine. In the end (the very end, mind you) we finally get some actual martial arts, with Dre entering a kung fu tournament to show up those evil bullies from the evil martial arts academy. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say he does remarkably well for a fighter who’s never actually sparred with another human being and has spent the bulk of his training picking up a jacket.
Yes, there’s really only one sequence of martial arts in the entire film. It’s extended, but still. Honestly, it’s probably for the best, since it’s fairly clear fairly early that Jaden Smith has no martial arts ability whatsoever. The kid can move a little and has obviously inherited a lot of his father’s muscle memory. He can definitely dance and is good at striking poses. But it takes an awful lot of Hollywood trickery to make it look like he can throw a punch or land a kick. Hard to believe, but he actually makes Ralph Macchio look like a convincing bad-ass. Jackie Chan, on the other hand, is a master of the art form. Certainly, he’s a better choice for the mentor role than comedian Pat Morita. Sadly, Jackie’s sole martial arts sequence is a brief one in which he beats up a bunch of adolscents. Not very impressive, really.
If you tried hard, you might be able to equate The Karate Kid to various historic, “training”-style kung fu films. Hong Kong classics like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The 18 Bronzemen showcased relatively little actual hand-to-hand combat. They focused, instead, on the brutal day-to-day training techniques employed by the Shaolin temples. But then they also had the mind-boggling athleticism of guys like Gordon Liu to showcase. Twig-thin would-be tween idol Jaden Smith just ain’t in that category. He does get to rap the closing credit song, though.
So, if you’re going to see The Karate Kid for its fight scenes, you'll be getting precious little. Instead, the 2 hour and 15 minute film is overstuffed with subplots that have nothing to do with martial arts. (Will the cute Chinese girl Dre has a crush on land a scholarship to the prestigious music academy? ... Seriously, who cares?) The final, completely predictable showdown between Dre and the evil bullies is enough to elicit a few cheers from the audience—but it’s possible they’re just hungry for any sort of excitement at that point.
Add it all up, and this retooled, pre-teen, outsourced-to-China version of The Karate Kid is a lot like New Coke or Crystal Pepsi (to continue the flashback theme). It’s splashy, will attract a lot of attention and may even garner a few young fans. But it offers nothing that the original didn’t do better.