Welcome to the third part of what has become an unintentional trilogy. Within the past several months, I re-watched the original trilogy of Karate Kid movies, then I decided to buckle down and watch the fourth for the first time. Just to complete the trifecta, I re-watched the 2010 Karate Kid remake with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. Interestingly enough, this was the only Karate Kid movie I saw in theaters (my parents didn’t take me to the theater much as a lad). Around this time, there were a ton of remakes of 80s films such as Robocop and Nightmare on Elm Street (it’d be a while before Hollywood decided to just have sequels to 80s movies instead… a bit more creative). Honestly, I watched the movie mostly for Jackie Chan as I’m a big fan. At the time, I think I might’ve liked it better than the original as a knee-jerk reaction but now that over 10 years have passed and I have recently re-watched both, what do I think? Let’s find out.
Hey, I’ve seen this one before!
So there are generally two types of remakes: remakes that change things so much that they lose the spirit of the original or remakes that change so little that they don’t have anything new to say. The only modern remake I consider to find that very fine-line between the two is the Evil Dead remake but that’s a discussion for another time. Going back to this movie, it’s safe to say that if you’ve seen the original Karate Kid, then you’ve seen the remake. It’s almost beat-for-beat the same.
Our film starts with our protagonist, Dre, and his mom loading a car up and saying goodbye to their extended family as they make their way to another location so that the mom can make a fresh start with a new employer. Sound familiar? The difference is that instead of moving to California, they move to China. So, they arrive at the new apartment building and Dre briefly meets Mr. Han, the maintenance worker (and secretly a martial-artist) for the building, then makes a new friend who invites him to play sports. In this case, instead of playing soccer on the beach, they play basketball in the park. And yes, like the friend Daniel meets in the original Karate Kid, this guy disappears after this scene. I’ll give kudos to the movie in that Dre ends up being lousy at basketball as opposed to Daniel LaRusso being good at soccer. Once he bricks one too many times, he plays ping-pong with an old dude instead and we’re led think he has ping-pong skills. But wait! The old dude trounces him at ping-pong, too. I’ll give the movie credit for doubly subverting my expectations. It’s a good way to endear us to Dre by making him out to be a dork that we can root for.
Anyway, he gets the attention of a girl named Meiyang so he dances a little bit for her. They start to flirt and at this point, you’ve probably figured out the main antagonist and his friends show up, right? Why, yes they do. Our main bully is named Cheng and while he did not date Meiyang, it’s established that their parents are friends and he probably has some feelings for her (although their interaction is pretty much limited to this one scene). The bully yells at the girl, throws her things on the ground, Dre tries to return said things, then gets a black eye for his trouble. The fight even plays out like the original: Cheng sweeps his leg, Dre throws a sucker punch, then gets a beating and is left on the ground, falsely telling Meiyang he’s fine when everyone clears out. Later, after the bullies continue to harass him at school, Dre goes to a kung-fu academy but sees that the bullies are there, so he leaves. Obviously, said bullies are being taught to show no mercy by an evil martial-artist named Master Li with an almost identical mantra to Cobra Kai. One day, Dre splashes water on the bullies after a school event. The bullies chase him and start beating him up with the one token “good” bully, Liang, asking for restraint much like Johnny Lawrence’s friend, Bobby. Mr. Han shows up, sends the bullies packing, and agrees to train Dre for the upcoming tournament. Oh, and Han even says, “No such thing as bad student; only bad teacher”.
There is an early training sequence in which Dre realizes the mundane chore he was asked to do (hanging up his jacket) was meant to build muscle memory, he learns a special move, and later discovers his mentor has a tragic backstory that includes a dead child and wife. In the climax, Mr. Han enters him in the tournament while also admitting that he has never prepared for a competition as his skills were only used for fighting in the streets. Dre defeats his opponents so Master Li tells Liang to injure him, which he does, against his wishes. Mr. Han uses a healing technique to prepare Dre for his final bout with Cheng (although cupping is a bit more likely to be used in the real world than whatever Miyagi did, even if there’s no scientific basis for it being effective). When Dre comes back, Cheng is instructed by Master Li to break the leg completely. It almost happens but Dre pulls out the special move and we all know the rest of the story. So what’s the difference? Well, surprisingly enough, there is still enough there to separate it from the original.
This movie definitely understands that it’s a remake and has a lot of references and multiple lines of dialogue that are either very similar to or outright taken from the original script. But it still has fun with it. For instance, there’s at least one scene where Dre takes the Crane Kick stance while training. When we first see Mr. Han, he’s eating with chopsticks and chasing a fly across the room just like Miyagi’s first appearance but at the last minute, he whips out a fly swatter and squashes it. It was a funny little bit that shows the movie acknowledges the first film while going in a different direction.
Now, as I mentioned above, the first and third acts are more or less identical to the first film. It’s the second act that switches things up for the better. The first thing I noticed was that there’s more for Meiyang to do than Ali in the first movie. When I re-watched the original movies, I noted that Ali was basically just a plot device for Johnny and Daniel to fight over and mostly disappeared in the second act after some contrived reasons for a brief break-up. Meiyang had an actual subplot to herself where she was preparing for a violin recital and had an overbearing teacher and parents. Dre’s mom also got to have a scene with Mr. Han, which showed great chemistry between the characters. I loved the scene at the shadow puppet show where Dre had his first kiss with Meiyang and their silhouettes are projected over the puppets; it was cute. I loved the reactions from the mom and Han there. It should also be mentioned that Cheng and the other bullies appear only once or twice during this act while the movie mostly focuses on Dre’s romance, which is in stark contrast to the first film. I got a better sense of Meiyang’s character than I ever did of Ali’s. In the original, Ali’s parents liked Johnny with the implication it was due to his affluence but they never interacted much with Daniel so it was never fully driven home. In this movie, the parents directly disapprove of Dre and have to be won over, which was a nice bit of added conflict.
Additionally, the fight scenes are probably better as, and I’m sorry if this offends anyone, but kung-fu does look better on screen than karate. Speaking of which, this movie really should have been called The Kung-Fu Kid since, aside from Dre watching karate on TV in one scene and his mom mistaking the two martial-arts, there’s no karate to be had. That said, this movie has Jackie Chan who is always great to watch, even in his old age. The only drawback is that the kids in this movie are about 12 or 13, making it a bit weird when Mr. Han defeats the bullies or when we see them in the tournament doing back-flip kicks in each others’ faces with no protective gear whatsoever.
Another thing they do in the second act is take the action to a temple in the Chinese countryside. This allows for a nice change in scenery as well as a cameo from Michelle Yeoh (if you want to see another movie featuring Jackie Chan and Ms. Yeoh, I recommend “Supercop” from 1992). Yeoh’s silent cameo character would eventually inspire Dre to learn the technique that allows him to defeat Cheng. I really liked the part where Dre drank from the well that was said to make one undefeatable.
Another interesting point that I don’t think was entirely international is the theme of racism. Now, in the original Karate Kid films, the mostly white bad guys were typically racist toward Mr. Miyagi. The poor guy couldn’t go ten feet without some racist idiot spewing epithets before getting a kick to the face. It wasn’t a huge part of the films but it was there. Here, with Dre moving to China, the racism is reversed; the teacher is a local while his student is the outsider that isn’t accepted by the villains. I don’t think this reversal was entirely planned but it still creates a nice contrast.
One last contrast before I move on: I like the scene where Dre comes to Mr. Han’s house while he’s drunk and mourning the deaths of his wife and child. Obviously, this scene also happened in the Karate Kid, but I think it’s more effective here, honestly. Jackie Chan is best known for action-comedies but the man can do drama and there was more interaction between teacher and student here than in the original where Daniel mostly stays silent with Miyagi barely noticing him. I liked how Dre silently led Han out of the damaged car and coaxed him into a training session. It was a nice scene, made all the more powerful by the usage of shadows and James Horner’s score.
So What Else?
This is the part where I just list more things I liked and disliked without much comparison.
As someone who lived in Asia for eleven years, I can relate to Dre and his mom getting acclimated to their surroundings and trying to get a maintenance worker to look at their apartment while struggling through language barriers. Speaking of which, the mom mentioned she was on level ten or something at the beginning of the movie but was just learning how to say “Hello, how are you”. That part was weird.
As for the villains, Master Li is no John Kreese. He was not as engaging as the highly-underrated character actor Martin Kove. Master Li had no backstory other than just being randomly mean while the first Karate Kid at least showed Kreese was a Vietnam vet, explaining why he might be so militant (with subsequent follow-ups exploring his backstory further, to be fair). Meanwhile, Cheng is no Johnny Lawrence, either. There’s not much of a set up for him to have a redemption in the final act, unlike William Zabka’s famous portrayal. Despite Cheng being fairly two-dimensional, they still have him look horrified when ordered to break Dre’s leg at the tournament, but he doesn’t really say anything to Master Li. And yes, at the end, he hands Dre the trophy after losing and it seems they added those little bits because that’s how the first movie did it. It doesn’t make as much sense to his character.
One more interesting thing is that they shot an extended ending scene featuring Mr. Han fighting Master Li. As you might know, the original script for Karate Kid would have ended with Mr. Miyagi confronting John Kreese. The scene was never in the movie but was filmed for the beginning of Karate Kid II. I kinda wish they included this scene just to switch things up a bit and because, once again, Jackie Chan is great to watch in fight scenes.
The movie was entertaining enough. Watching the original and seeing this movie months later took some enjoyment away as I was better equipped to see how much was lifted from the previous film. Still, there are far worse remakes out there. Be sure to get into a heated argument about them in the comments section below.