Alienation is a part of growing up. At some point, we’re ripped from the warm pile of indistinguishable other humans, handed arbitrary distinctions, and made to feel like there’s no one else on the planet that feels what we feel or experiences things the way we see them. It’s this rite of passage that is the most noticeable theme in The Karate Kid, and it doesn’t leave any character behind.
Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) have been relocated (with no other real financial options) to China, where Sherry will be working in the automobile plant there. When Dre gets his eyes blackened by another boy on playground, he becomes obsessed with learning how to defend himself, and finds an unwilling mentor in maintenance man Mr. Han (Jackie Chan). Dre falls in puppy love with Meiying (Wenwen Han), but he faces difficult training ahead and the threat of fighting his attacker in an open kung fu tournament.
This movie, directed by Harald Zwart, is about as seriously dramatic as you can aim at a younger audience, only lit occasionally by sparks of humor. For the most part, it weighs just heavily enough to make all of the situations of its story seem intimately dire. The humor comes from a sarcastic young lead and the ubiquitous warmth of character that can be found in just about any movie Jackie Chan sets foot in, but the moments are few, far between, and welcomed not because of the heaviness of the film, but because of its effectiveness in making the audience feel almost as isolated as Dre.
Tonally, it’s a very quiet film that builds to its crescendo steadily. In the beginning, Dre and Sherry are the only characters focused on – they are in a foreign country, don’t speak the language, don’t understand the culture, and Dre is graphically, violently bullied on his first day. The physicality and impact of some of the fighting sequences – especially early on when Dre can’t fight back – are brutal in light of the fact these are 11 and 12 years old fighting.
Finally, a movie with the kind of child-on-child violence America has been demanding.
But it works. The Karate Kid is decidedly un-campy in its attempt to show what it might really be like to be young and forced to move away from the safety of everything you know. This is matched by Mr. Han’s storyline – an ultimately tragic one that explains why he’s so sullen until he finds the small joy of Dre taking to the training. It’s also matched in some small way by every main character. Dre is a stranger in a strange land, his mother Sherry is upbeat but also never shown socializing with anyone but her son, Mr. Han barely speaks or interacts with anyone, and the love interest Meiying is isolated by her parents’ pressure on her to succeed as a violinist which results in her practicing away her childhood for hours on end.
Beyond probably over-thinking the theme of isolation, the movie is shot with technical and artistic proficiency – either in showcasing close-ups of the characters or the vast beauty of some of China’s more glorious attractions. One scene in particular that puts both on display is during a class field trip to The Forbidden City. After the giant doors are opened, the sweeping view of the city is revealed, but before exploring it the camera chooses to look down from above the ornate door on Meiying telling Dre that people rub the golden knobs for good luck.
Their relationship is almost instantaneous (because she finds him funny and, in an interestingly accurate cultural tip, wants to touch his dreadlocks), but it also builds really well, delivering an insight into young friendship and a life raft for Dre to cling to while feeling alone.
Swinging the pendulum away from love, the fight scenes are almost all visceral and shot to celebrate the beauty of Kung Fu. But, as mentioned before, that beauty becomes a little jarring when seeing young children go at it or Jackie Chan beating up a gang of 12 year olds. What results is Mr. Han tying himself inextricably to Dre, agreeing to face the brutal, “No Mercy” teacher (played stoically mixed with teeth-gritting by Rongguang Yu), and ultimately opting to train Dre so that the other kids will leave him alone (at least until they get the chance to beat him up publicly in a community-sanctioned event).
The film does fall short in that, while the story is taken seriously, it is also fairly plot-by-numbers. Still, the characters are given enough life, and enough unique moments together (usually ones that showcase Chinese culture) that the all-too-often seen structure is hidden by shadow puppets and ancient temples. It’s serious, but it’s still squarely for a younger audience.
It also struggles from the acting of its lead. It’s not that Jaden Smith doesn’t deliver a good performance. That’s all he really delivers. He’s mostly a kid responding to things like he thinks a kid responds instead of either responding naturally or, you know, acting. Despite mimicking his father’s style almost exactly, there are at least one or two promising scenes where we see him sink into the character, and the film would have greatly benefited from Smith spreading that skill out to the bulk of the run time. He’s relatively flat except for those few scenes, and their potential colors the rest of his performance as being less than what he’s capable of.
Over all, it’s a serious story about feeling young and alone, given its proper due by capable talents all around. It’s got heart, sometimes veers into schmaltzy territory, and it isn’t a revelation to be shouted from the rooftops about, but it’s a strong, engaging film with a good lesson at its core: don’t leave your jacket lying on the floor.
The Upside: Surprisingly serious, an interesting movie that showcases the natural beauty of the shooting location, great martial arts, and good to great performances that tell a universal story.
The Downside: Jaden Smith’s acting can be a little flat, and the story becomes a little too sweet at times.
On the Side: Were you aware that this is actually a remake of an older film? I know. Who knew. It’s crazy what they are able to do in Hollywood these days.