Review: Come For the Karate, Stay For the Kid (B)

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The original Karate Kid was about self-discipline; the new incarnation is far more about self-preservation. And while at the outset that distinction is a subtle one, it’s jarring enough to give the whole movie a different, pulpy flavor that can, at times, skew uncomfortably violent.

After all, how brutal do these fist-to-fist duels between a couple of tweens really have to be?

Thankfully, at the film’s center are two earnest, honest and revealing performances that keep the movie afloat with personality, even when the action skews heavy and redundant. While we may come for the karate, we ultimately end up staying for the kid.

In that first Karate Kid way back when, which was effectively a Rocky for teenie-boppers, the tensions skewed socioeconomic. Daniel (Ralph Macchio) was the poor new Jersey boy moving into the wealthy California suburb. When he tried to move in on a local’s girlfriend, he found himself at the wrong end of a karate demonstration. He craved vengeance, but wise old Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) taught him the importance of channeling his rage into the precise, brutal artistry of karate. And so Daniel became the best he could be, and went on to trounce the weaker fighters in the competition ring, who all took shortcuts in their training. (More at Techland: Five great movies adapted from video games)

The new Karate Kid has all the familiar pieces, just arranged to create a much different puzzle. Dre (Jaden Smith) is not just an outsider economically speaking, but also in terms of race and nationality. He’s a Detroit kid who has moved overseas to Beijing, after his mom lost her job with the ailing American auto industry, and he’s bullied almost immediately for being the new kid who dares to flirt with young Meiying (Wenwen Han), all without being able to say a word of Chinese.

Saved from a particularly brutal bullying session by Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the schleppy maintenance man at his apartment building, Dre begs the solemn kung fu master to pass down the tricks of the trade. Instead of wax-on-wax-off, Han teaches Dre instead about the virtues of hanging up his coat – after witnessing the young boy’s tendency to toss his hoodie on the ground in his apartment, where his mother must hang it up. Day after day, Dre repeats hanging up his coat on a wooden pole, unaware that it’s the mental fortitude – as well as his posture and arm muscles – that Han is honing. Kung fu is not about the body blow, Han says, but about the balance and dexterity.

In the first Karate Kid, Daniel’s enemies wanted simply to win a karate tournament. In this Karate Kid, there’s a sort of nationalistic zeal to the battles – a “no mercy” approach by Dre’s enemies that reveal they are truly out to destroy him. Also surprising this time around: Dre’s forced romantic overtures to a still-too-young Meiying, a relationship that pales in comparison to the chemistry between Macchio a young Elisabeth Shue. Even in the climactic kung fu tournament, there are moments where the gymnastics go a little over the top, defying physics and any sense of gravity courtesy of Hollywood special effects. (More at Techland: Top 10 spelling bee freakouts)

Thankfully, this Karate Kid has charm to spare. The melodrama feels forced,  but not the personalities. Jackie Chan is pitch-perfect as the quiet, heartbroken, over-the-hill kung fu master, committing himself to breaking down young Dre’s arrogance. And Jaden Smith, who already demonstrated an impressive emotional range in The Pursuit of Happyness, sells us on Dre’s intimate, incremental coming-of-age journey.

Back in 1984, Daniel learned the value of study and hard work. But Dre’s journey goes well beyond the practice sessions. In the schoolyard, relegated to “the outsider,” he is forced to come to grips with his own values and priorities. At home, he learns what it’s like to have a stressed parent who must lean a little on him for support. Han takes Dre all across China, from the Great Wall to a mystical mountaintop where he sees the true potential of men and women who have devoted their lives to developing their supernatural powers, and it’s here where Dre discovers the world beyond his world.

It’s a little kitschy and exaggerated, yes, but it all builds up to a marvelous, silent moment on a Beijing apartment balcony, when Dre – exercising all by himself – flexes and stretches, mimicking those mystics he saw up on the mountain. And it’s Smith who sells us on Dre’s eye-opening realization – the same revelation that all children have one day, that they are not the center of the universe, but only a young star, struggling to learn how to orbit. Daniel refined his punch; Dre learns how to open himself up to the strange new world that surrounds him.

So while the tournament, and the girl, fall a little flat in this Karate Kid, what we’re given instead is a character who’s traveled a far greater distance, and grown in front of our eyes. Seeing now beyond his Detroit horizons, beyond the schoolyard bullying, Dre has learned a new sense of perspective. And it’s not our ability to root for Dre that sells this new version, but our ability to admire his quest for self-improvement. The 1984 kid mastered karate, but the 2010 kid seems to have learned something a whole lot more valuable.

I, for one, will be excited about the next Jaden Smith film. This kid’s the real deal.

Techland’s Grade: B

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