Viewers of The Karate Kid will undoubtedly fall into two camps: Those, like myself, who are fiercely protective of the original and who find the new version both unnecessary and somewhat lacking; and newcomers to the film, who will cheer the story of a fatherless boy who is bullied and then trained to become a martial arts expert by a kindly and wise father figure.
Let’s face it, you’d have to work really hard to screw that story up—and the filmmakers don’t. Their version is slick and satisfying entertainment. But compared to the original, they made some, shall we say, odd choices.
For one, the Daniel character, now named Dre and played by cutie Jaden Smith (Will and Jada’s kid) has moved from Detroit to China with his mom (Taraji P. Henson). I like that, because the fish-out-water aspect was always a big part of Daniel’s journey. But they don’t do karate in China. They do kung fu, which the film acknowledges. Why not, then, change the name of the film to The Kung Fu Kid?
Next, there’s Mr. Miyagi, now played by Jackie Chan and named (the much less cool sounding) Mr. Han. Part of the mystique of Mr. Miyagi was that he was frail—he didn’t look like he could administer a beat down. So when he opens up a can of whup-ass on Daniel’s tormenters, it’s surprising—and spells out a lesson about respecting one’s elders and the power of mind over matter. Jackie Chan can slump his shoulders and affect a shuffling gait all he wants (as in the original, his handyman is scarred by a tragedy), but he looks like what he is—an athlete.
Speaking of that beat down: the Daniel in the original movie was about 16 (and played by the 45-year-old Ralph Macchio—just kidding). Dre is 12. And even though the scene where Mr. Han saves Dre from the bullies is played partly for laughs—Mr. Han ducks and deflects in such a way that the boys end up beating each other up—it’s still a grown man attacking a bunch of children. Awkward. (Dre’s being 12 also makes his crush on a pretty Chinese violin prodigy a bit of a stretch. When he watches a dubbed SpongeBob Squarepants on Chinese TV, it seems more realistic.)
Finally, “put the jacket on, take the jacket off” is no match for “wax on, wax off.” (I mean, really?)
Look, I can see why the Smiths, who executive produced this film (and gave their son top billing!), wanted their little tyke to star. Not only is he a fine actor—how could he not be with those genes?—he’s quite the acrobat. Dre’s highly choreographed training sessions with Mr. Han involve lots of flips and kicks and are a cut above the ones we saw with Daniel. You see that? I did find something I prefer in the new version.