The Karate Kid

Director: Harald Zwart.
Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wanwen Han, Rongguang Yu and Zhensu Wu.
Distributor: Sony Pictures
Runtime: 140 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Martial arts violence

It is 26 years since the original Karate Kid was released starring Ralph Macchio as the young lad trained in the arts of defence by Mr Miyagi, played by Pat Morita. It was followed by two sequels and another starring a young Hilary Swank as ‘The Next Karate Kid’. This time, our hero is not so much the karate kid as The Kung Fu Kid, because that is what he is trained in and what he demonstrates in the climactic tournament. The 12 year olds of 1984 are now asked to make up their minds as to whether their now 12 year old kids should see this one or not.

There has been some debate about the classification of the film, some vocal protests that it was too violent for a PG rating. It was given a PG rating in the US and the US Catholic Bishops Conference reviewer judged it suitable for adults and adolescents, noting the fights and the violence associated with them and suggesting, rightly, that parents and guardians should decide suitability according to their knowledge of the children’s sensibilities – though they do warn that there is ‘an unnecessary kiss between pre-teens’! (but it is presented in the gentlest of ways and in context).

This re-make, or re-working, relies on the basic plot outline of the original: a mother and son move to a new location where the son does not fit in and is bullied; befriends a young girl; is trained by a martial arts expert who works as a handyman and fights against students of a brutally-minded instructor. This time the location is much more exotic than a move from New Jersey to California. It is from the US to China – and location production takes great advantage of Beijing and its sights, the mountainous countryside and the Great Wall of China. (It should serve as a great PR film for Americans who don’t know what modern China looks like or how it is both changing and the same, and become aware of some of its customs with respect and realise that there are other languages in the world.)

When Ralph Macchio played the karate kid, he was, in fact, 23 years old. Here we have Jaden Smith, aged 11 when he made the film, acting 12. The film is strong enough to attract a teen audience and boys and girls around the age of Smith and the young violinist who befriends him. Jaden Smith made an engaging impression when he appeared with his father, Will Smith, in The Pursuit of Happyness. He does not let us down here. The camera loves him and, even though he is of a very slight build, he convinces that he is athletic and could do all the training and bouts that we see on screen. He is a bit surly about going to China with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) and the initial bullying gets him down. But, when he is saved from the aggressive boys by the quiet handyman, he submits to the discipline of the training and learns what it is to focus and to act with respect. (Of, course, in this the film is offering a decent role model and has its ‘inspirational’ moments.)

Jackie Chan might seem an obvious choice to play Mr Han, given his long career and his martial arts skills, dexterity and creativity. But, he does not bring on his genial and comic persona at all. This Jackie Chan performance is low-key, quietly wise, a mentor and a father-figure. He does it very well and sympathetically, indeed.

It is hard not to be really annoyed at the bullying and hard not to want to see some vengeance wreaked on the boys. But, Mr Han explains that Kung Fu is for making peace and trains the boy accordingly. Which means that the tournament bouts are stirring and we want the kid to win despite all the odds, being underdog, being foreign, being the target of the unscrupulous rival coach. John G. Avildsen directed the original and its sequels and also Rocky, creating an image of the battler who overcomes obstacles and gets up again. The Rocky spirit still lives in this Karate Kid.

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