Some films are unnecessary to remake, others impossible. 1984's The Karate Kid seems an apt example of the latter -- its charm largely attributable to nostalgic recollections of what, in the clarity of adulthood, is an irrefutably hokey premise. But somehow its legacy lives, partly due to our current love affair with kitsch. I still hear snippets of dialogue on street corners or crowded parties ("wax on, wax off" and "Daniel-san") and I've seen at least a dozen hipsters sporting vintage style "Karate Kid" tees. Though I haven't seen the original film in a good ten years, it never fully departed from my consciousness -- not because it is a good film, but because of its continuing resonance in pop-culture. Such a film -- a cult film in essence -- should not be tampered with by modern hands. Needless to say, my expectations for the remake, directed by the "auteur" behind last year's cinema-cide, The Pink Panther 2, were abysmal at best.
So it came as the utmost surprise that this new-fangled version is truly not that bad. A matter a fact, it's a half decent family film (a rare breed indeed). In many ways, it takes a significantly more realistic approach to the source material. First, the filmmakers transplant the setting from the San Fernando Valley to Beijing, where martial arts are an indelible cultural practice as opposed to a passing West Coast fad. Secondly, the "kid" is much younger (twelve versus seventeen) and thus a more realistic convert than an angst-ridden teenager. Lastly, the film never takes itself too seriously and often plays humorous homage to the original. For instance, the initial meeting of Dre (Jaden Smith) and Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) riffs on the unforgettable chopstick and fly scene. Just when you think Mr. Han is about to pinch the hapless insect between his utensils of death, he smacks it with a swatter.
By and large the film follows the familiar plot arch: young boy moves with his single mom to a new city and proceeds to be picked on by bullies. In order to combat the attackers, he learns martial arts from a down-and-out instructor who works as a maintenance man and the two develop a close bond. All of this culminates in a huge tournament showdown with the aforementioned bullies. While the narrative may not offer many new twists, the exotic setting (filmed on location in China) buoys the visuals.
In the title role, Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith) is likable and appears to have inherited both his father's charm and his mother's good looks. However, one gets the feeling the charming, beautiful Smiths are viewing this as their son's official showbiz debut (though he has been in other things) and it's vaguely obnoxious. There's a serious ick factor when the end credits roll -- basically a series of publicity stills of young Jaden decked out in his coolest duds.
This definitely isn't a great movie and I certainly don't think it will be remembered like the first Karate Kid, but it's serviceable family entertainment. Adults may not be riveted, but they won't find themselves glancing at their watch every five minutes either. And kids... kids tend to like pretty much anything you set in front of them.