The Karate Kid (2010)
Will Smith will end you if the kid gets hurt, Jackie.

Theatrical Release Date: 06/11/2010
Director: Harald Zwart
Cast: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Zhenwei Wang, Rongguang Yu

“The Karate Kid (1984)” is a teenage version of David versus Goliath. It spawned three sequels (though the last two aren’t worth much aside from letting Hilary Swank fill in on the last in the series) and cemented itself as the quintessential high school bully film.

It’s been 16 years since the last film and we’re over a quarter century removed from the original so I can begrudgingly accept that there’s room for a film to introduce the themes and archetypes to a whole new generation. However, “The Karate Kid (2010)” fails to live up to its progenitor and while I’m sure audiences will flock to it opening weekend, those familiar with the series will at best be bored and more likely find themselves wondering how they ended up in the theater to begin with.

Now keep in mind that I grew up on the 1984 film and don’t quite understand (in my soul) why Hollywood continues to just rehash properties and adapt established material time and time again instead of going with original screenplays (yes, I get the financial sense). With that in mind, let’s take a look at each element/actor one by one and see how they stack up.

I’ll begin with seeing how Jaden Smith stacks up against Ralph Macchio. Clearly, there’s an age gap so some of the themes of the original film (specifically the romantic angle) just don’t translate. Smith does a decent job of it all but I’m sure it says something more about me than the film that I laughed and cheered whenever he got beat up. Also, because of the setting change, the fantastic Halloween dance where our hero antagonizes the bullies has been replaced by a much less exciting “I’ll splash dirty water on them” scene … ugh.

Now of course, just as, if not more important than filling in for Mr. Macchio, is who’s replacing the immortal shoes of Pat Morita. Well, Jackie Chan is a logical choice (I would have preferred Chow Yun Fat but am glad to not see him besmirched via inclusion) and for the most part, he too does fine. To no one’s surprise, the best action scene involves Chan fighting off a group of bullies who have shown the Fresh Prince’s heir apparent how to receive multiple kicks and punches.

His training practices though just about sent me through the roof. ‘Wax on, wax off’, ‘sand the floor’ and ‘paint the fence’ all became ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist. Here we get to see Smith hang up his jacket, put it on, drop it on the floor and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat and … you get the point. Seeing Macchio perform his tasks also created a sense of bonding and teasing between him and Morita. Here, Chan is simply able to do whatever he wants while Smith continually obeys what is essentially one task split into multiple parts that doesn’t even translate as well into the eventual Kung-Fu moves required.

Then there’s the absence of the Crane Kick. This move was pivotal to Macchio’s eventual victory and was developed within the framework of the film. Here, Smith’s ultimate move is something he pulls out of a hat and has no context whatsoever. Sure, it draws applause from an audience begging for some energy but it’s simply lazy storytelling.

We come now to the make or break element of just about any film: the villain. William Zabka was the greatest bully of the ’80s and it can be argued none have surpassed him since. To see this film try was painful and one of the many reasons it didn’t work. While Zhenwei Wang did a nice job of being acrobatic, he’s simply too young to make me feel his hatred is for real. And although there was plenty of time for a character arc to be explored, the opportunity to humanize the bully is never fully explored – further knocking this reboot down a peg.

An extension of humanizing the bully, there needs to be an even bigger jerk and in the original film, that was Martin Kove as the Sensei responsible for turning teenagers into martial artist hooligans. Rongguang Yu steps into the 2010 version and does an admirable job but because the bullies get shorted in character development, Yu does as well.

If there are characters who aren’t too watered down, they are the ladies of the film. Both Taraji P. Hensen as Smith’s mother and Wenwen Han as the girlfriend hold up their ends of the bargain. While neither version gives these roles too much to do, I wasn’t necessarily begging for a script rewrite or recasting here as with nearly everything else.

Moving onto the person calling ‘action’, I’m not sure how such a high profile reboot got in the hands of director Harald Zwart seeing as his last film was “The Pink Panther 2“. Like with every other feature of his I’ve sat through, there seemed to be no soul to the project as a whole and it only leaves the audience out in the cold.

Getting past Zwart to the other major source of so many problems, there’s the script. First of all, Smith is being taught Kung-Fu, so calling this “The Karate Kid” is like rebooting “Wimbledon” using basketball as the showcased sport (I won’t be surprised if only America gets saddled with this title in order to allow for easier marketing). And while many of the scenes that were specifically tailored to match the change in locale from Los Angeles to Beijing weren’t so bad, there are a number of key scenes that were basically lifted straight from the original and tweaked just enough to say it wasn’t a xerox copy. The idea may have been to be an homage but the result was highlighting all the inadequacies this reboot holds.

For example, that beautiful scene in the original where Morita relates the death of his family to Macchio plays so well and even earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The attempt to recreate that moment here falls flatter than a pancake run over by a steamroller and only serves to elongate what is already a 140 minute movie.

And yes, you read that right. This film clocks in at 2 hours and 20 minutes. It’s almost a full hour before Smith and Chan even agree to team up … and getting to that point is an exercise in unnecessary exposition. While I’m sure someone got paid to edit the film, it would have been nice to see someone else step in and further trim things down, as the project could have shed 30 minutes without anyone in the audience batting an eye. While the kids getting restless or losing consciousness at the screening I attended were re-energized by the final tournament that closes out the film, they were clearly bored by the preceding events and probably would have skipped ahead on the DVD if they had a choice.

Last on my hit list is the soundtrack. While I don’t quite fault any of the choices, as musical tastes change over time, it still felt a little lacking to hear a few notes of AC/DC (no matter how good they are) instead of Joe Esposito’s classic “You’re the Best” which perfectly fit the film’s tournament montage. (And I sorely missed lines like “Sweep the leg” and “Get him a body bag”.)

It’s evident that I’m not the target demographic for this effort and it’s only because I’m separating my personal distaste at even doing this reboot in the first place that I can give “The Karate Kid (2010)” a 2 out of 5. If I had children, they wouldn’t be seeing this version and I’d instead introduce them to the 1984 original when it was appropriate. There isn’t nearly enough action on display, the themes are not properly handled and it trudges along like a blind man in the desert, with no real sense of direction. Don’t bother waiting for DVD or cable, just rewatch the original and move on.