Maybe, but after having seen it, I can assure you that whatever the producers’ intentions were, the end result is such a wonderful time at the movies that it doesn’t matter. This new “Karate Kid” is a total crowd-pleaser, featuring a star-making turn by Jaden Smith, a funny, endearing, resourceful little actor who has clearly inherited his dad’s charisma.
Furthermore, beside the title (which doesn’t even really make sense, since kung fu, not karate, is at the center of the story this time) and the basic plot (kid gets beat up by bullies, is trained in martial arts by an old man with unorthodox methods, ends up kicking major ass during a big tournament), this isn’t that faithful a redo. Oh, you’ll recognize many beats here and there, but there are just as many little twists and some major changes to the story and characters, notably the fact that instead of being set in the San Fernando Valley and featuring a bunch of young white guys, it takes place in China and boasts an almost all-Asian cast, save for the African American protagonist and his mother (hilariously played by Taraji P. Henson).
I’ve already told you about Jaden Smith shining in the title part, but of course, a “Karate Kid” movie also needs great support from the actor playing the old martial arts master. There will never be another Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, R.I.P.), but almost as awesome is the Mr. Han introduced here, a character which allows Jackie Chan to deliver his best English-language performance ever. Alternately amusing, badass and heartbreaking, Chan’s work here perfectly complements Smith’s. Their characters’ surrogate father-son relationship is involving, and so are the training scenes which, like in the original, make use of unexpected techniques. No “wax on, wax off”, but we get the “take off your jacket, put it on, etc.” variant. The training also gets to be quite intense – it’s not the cruel tutelage of Pai Mei, but almost! Likewise, the fight scenes are surprisingly brutal, with the main bully coming off like a perfectly detestable sociopath and his master not faring much better (his motto: “No weakness, no pain, no mercy!”).
I’d never seen a Harald Zwart-directed picture before, as his filmography seems iffy (“One Night at McCool’s”, “Agent Cody Banks”, “The Pink Panther 2″…), but he handles “The Karate Kid” with a lot of skill. Or at least, he’s surrounded himself wisely with, notably, cinematographer Roger Pratt, composer James Horner and French Canadian production designer François Séguin (a frequent collaborator of Denys Arcand and François Girard).
Add a cute little romance between Smith’s Dre and a Chinese girl, a bunch of semi profound philosophical/spiritual lessons, and detours by some amazing Chinese locations (the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Wudang Mountains, etc.), and you get a truly rewarding picture.