I’m sure it’s heretical in some corners, but I’ve never once seen The Karate Kid (1984), despite being of the age where this should have been a part of my youth. But let’s say for a second that I had been weaned on Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita—would this affect my opinion of this latest incarnation? Would I be wailing and gnashing teeth at Hollywood’s ruination of my childhood?
No, of course not. The idea that one movie could sully someone’s childhood is just silly; it would indicate it wasn’t much of a childhood to begin with. Anyone who wants to take exception to Hollywood cranking out a remake of some beloved prepubescent classic should just take to mind what Raymond Chandler once said when someone asked him about what Hollywood had done to his books: “Hollywood hasn’t done anything to them. They’re still right there on the shelf.”
But really, this is about the mootest of points, since this Karate Kid—besides similarities to the original in its basic plot—is a remake in name only. Maybe the most interesting aspect of the movie is how the film goes out of its way to play against expectations. It’s more than just how there’s no character named Mr. Miyagi. The film points out pretty early on that there’s no karate going on here; it’s all kung fu. More than this, but it’s almost refreshing to find a remake, reboot or whatever this is, that’s not obsessed with in-jokes and references. The closest thing we get to this is Jackie Chan waxing his car—and that’s it. There’s not even a cheeky “wax on, wax off” thrown in.
Don’t mistake this Karate Kid for some bastion of originality. The movie is your basic uplifting sports flick. A young boy (Jaden Smith) learns martial arts from an old man (Jackie Chan) in an attempt to stop bullies, with it all culminating in a fighting tournament. The only huge difference this time around is that the setting has been shifted to China.
The intervening quarter century has also ratcheted up the violence a good bit. Sure, it’s all blood-less—the movie is PG-rated, after all—but it’s shockingly visceral for a film aimed squarely at preteens and more than a bit unnerving.
Even with these reservations—and the ungodly 240-minute running time—the movie still works within the confines of its limited aims, passing with ease the “If I were a 10-year-old, would I find this awesome?” litmus test. But even with its predictability and its bloated running time, it’s not a complete waste for people who have passed middle school. A lot of this is pinned on Jackie Chan’s performance. Surprisingly, one can easily forget how he’s pretty much never been given anything to do other than just be happy, goofy Jackie Chan. Here, we get what might be the closest we’ll ever see to a serious role for Chan, and he nails it. For such a run-of-the-mill movie, Chan’s performance is probably more than the film deserves. Nevertheless, I’ll be the last to complain that the performance is there. Rated PG for bullying, martial-arts-action violence and some mild language.