Film Review – Karate Kid (2010)

In Columbia Pictures’ The Karate Kid, 12 year old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) could have been the most popular kid in Detroit but his mum, (Taraji P Henson) decides to take up her company’s offer and relocates to China, to Beijing with Dre in tow.  On his first day in China, Dre makes some friends with some other kids in the neighbourhood but when he sees a young violinist, Mei Ying, he’s tiny bit smitten.  He shows off some cool dance moves for Mei which draws the attention of local bully Cheng, and his crew of fellow thugs.  Dre knows a bit of karate so he tries to fend off Cheng who wipes the floor with him and leaves him a huddled mess in the middle of the playground. And we segue into the review…

Like everyone else who remembers the first and the original Karate Kid, I experienced my own eye-roll when I saw that it was being remade.  I didn’t think it needed remaking, it was what it was back in the 80’s.  Ralph Macchio was the dude and Mr. Miyagi was pretty cool with his wax-on-wax-off style of teaching. What could a remake bring to the screen that I would be excited about it?

Well, it’s not a remake.  It’s its own story.  Most obviously because the karate kid does not learn karate.  He is taught kung fu.  Also, he doesn’t move with his mum to some crummy new neighbourhood in the States, he completely leaves the country and goes somewhere completely foreign, where no one speaks English and he is treated with hostility from day one.  He only has himself, his mum and Mei Ying as a friend.

The casting of Jaden Smith as Dre Parker was a stroke of genius.  The kid has star quality.  He’s a bit cheeky, a bit naughty, but also quick to be sweet and kind and generous.  You feel empathy for him as he skulks around the school where he does his best to stay out of Cheng’s way.  Cheng has it in for him in a bad way.  Cheng’s family knows Mei Ying’s family and Cheng takes it on himself to stay between Dre and Mei Ying, telling Mei Ying that she needs to practice her violin if she wants to get into the Beijing School of Music.  She needs to remember who she is doing it for because she does not want to embarrass and disappoint her parents.

The small interlude between Cheng and Mei Ying is powerful and it tells us so much about duty and honour, as seen from within the Chinese family and also as it is seen from without, by a Western boy.

When Dre can’t stand the skulking any more, he tosses and entire bucket of old water and muck over Cheng and his cronies and makes a run for it.  The chase sequence through the streets of Beijing and the markets is incredibly cinematic.  Eventually Dre is cornered in a small patio area around the corner from his apartment.  He does his best to fight off Cheng and the baddies but he fails and they wail on him.  Man, they beat him to bits.  But as Cheng straddles Dre, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the maintenance man intervenes and using their own attacks against them, sends them packing by using his own set of kung fu skills.

Mr. Han and Dre

He collects Dre who is tiny, actually, and carries him to his office where he uses the hot cup (correct term: cupping) technique on Dre, placing various cups that he has prepared by using heat to reduce the pressure in the cup, on his bruised and strained muscles.  It doesn’t completely heal Dre but he feels better for it.

Dre asks Mr. Han to please teach him kung fu and Mr. Han refuses. He is about to throw a strop but Mr. Han decides that they need to go to Cheng’s school where is taught kung fu to and ask for pardon from Cheng’s teacher but also to ask them to please stop beating up Dre.

An intense sequence follows with the result that Mr. Han agrees to teach Dre kung fu in order to not just save face but to help Dre.  Cheng and his friends agrees to leave him alone in the meantime…if Dre agrees to take part in a martial arts tournament.

And instead of a breezy training montage, we are with Dre almost every step of the way as Mr. Han does his version of wax-on-wax-off, by making Dre take his jacket on and off around a  million times.

Put your jacket on. Now take it off.

Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) is superlative in his role as the reluctant teacher.  Unlike Mr. Miyagi, Mr. Han has a backstory and the writers have worked hard to create a character that we both like and understand.  He is not some inscrutable kung fu master that gives directions in short clipped tones.  As Dre learns the moves, we learn the moves and things are explained and they make sense.

Slowly Dre’s attitude towards everything starts changing – he is becoming confident in himself and owns up to responsibility.  He stands by Mei Ying when her parents warn her not to see him again.  He is heartbroken but he understands and he works it through, with the help of Mr. Han who becomes both teacher and friend to him.

Wudang Mountain

Cinematically Karate Kid is a feast for the eyes.  Shot in Beijing, the crew had the opportunity to shoot within The Forbidden City.  Mr. Han takes Dre to practice on Great Wall and with Dre in tow, he takes him on a pilgrimage to Wudang Mountain to discover the origins of kung fu.   It’s probably one of the best sequences in the movie (apart from the tournament scenes) and it is watching it that you realise that yes, they aren’t remaking the original, this is something entirely different, although the base construct may be the same.

There are quite a few scenes in which we are shown Dre practicing and doing katas, kicking and punching. He has an incredibly expressive face so for not one moment do we believe that he is giving it his all.  As his abilities grow, so does his relationship with Mr. Han.  They find within one another a camaraderie and friendship lacking in both lives.

Inside Wudang Mountain

Over eight hundred extras were brought in for the final tournament scenes, not counting the “press” and photographers.  The scene buzzed with strong energy.  The young actors and martial artists who took part in the tournament really gave it their all.  I don’t think the producers and directors had much to do with the shouting and screaming at each fight.

The final fight is of course, Dre and Cheng, as they are the only ones who had made it through to the final.  The fight scene is intense.  It is by far more brutal than some other movies I have seen in the past.  Everyone in the cinema winced with each blow Dre received or delivered on / from Cheng.   The fight scene reminded me strongly of the scenes in Enter the Dragon where Bolo is shown as this thinly veiled psychopath.

**tiny spoiler**

The end of the movie was maybe a bit sentimental, as Cheng walks away from his tutor to confront Han and instead of doing some martial arts on Han, he bows low, as a student does to a master.  Several of Gheng’s friends do the same, leaving their tutor, who is fuming, to come and bow to Han and shake Dre’s hand.

Karate Kid is a great feel good flick, once you get over all the bone-crunching punches. It is a great underdog story and everyone with a bit of soul, loves an underdog story.  If you feel heartsore about the first one, and you think nothing can be as good, I’d like you to go and see this one and take it for what it is: an update on the classic perhaps, but also think of it as a Karate Kid for a new generation who may not be able to identify with the original. Just go and see it and don’t let your misty fond memories cloud your judgement on this one.  It is as good, if not better.

And remember: everything is kung fu!

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