ALL ENTRIES CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR THE KARATE KID FRANCHISE
THE KARATE KID
The Karate Kid is a film that, in common with the experiences of many born in the 80s, means a lot to me. It reminds me of renting videos in the summer holidays, watching TV repeats again and again with my Dad and brothers, shouting “BONSAI” at the top of our voices and practising the crane move balanced on seaside breakwaters. But peel away those layers of nostalgia and is there actually a good film underneath? Well, it’s impossible to completely remove the nostalgic element from my love of The Karate Kid and neither should I really feel the need to. Personal experience is, after all, a valid part of film criticism. But I think The Karate Kid definitely has more than just the weight of bygone memories behind it. It endures as a classic, if occasionally meandering, piece of storytelling, buoyed by a couple of nice central performances. Though often categorised as both a sports film and a high school movie, I’d say The Karate Kid is primarily a moving story of a blossoming friendship between an unlikely duo and it is in these scenes, admittedly given a driving urgency by the sports strand of the plot, where the film truly excels.
John G. Avildsen had already won his Best Director Oscar for Rocky, which gave critics an easy Rocky-for-kids peg on which to hang their reviews. There’s a superficial similarity in that it’s a film that sets up its stakes and then slowly builds to a climactic showdown, but Rocky’s guff about manliness and fighting is subverted by The Karate Kid’s focus on defence, with violence being a last resort. As is the case with virtually every film of this kind, it has to deal with the fact that its hypocrisy shows in how prominently the violence is proffered in the dramatic peaks of the story, but the structure is satisfyingly executed in a way that minimises the damage of this self-aimed ideological leg-sweep.
The tale of Daniel LaRusso, a teenager who is uprooted from his New Jersey home when his mother accepts a job in California, The Karate Kid has a standard new-kid-in-town plot as Daniel falls for the wrong girl and enrages a group of entitled bullies who hold sway at his new school. Unable to pursue his interest in martial arts because of the dominance of the same bullies at the local karate school, Daniel finds solace in a growing friendship with his apartment block’s handyman Mr. Miyagi, who sets about mentoring him in the true meaning of karate. The performances of Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita as Daniel and Miyagi are The Karate Kid’s real trump cards. While Macchio’s fellow young cast members, a likeable Elisabeth Shue aside, have a tendency to overplay, Macchio is believable and appealing as a cocky kid out of his element, clinging to his vulnerable budding masculinity while getting by on his unconventional charm. Morita, meanwhile, easily steals the film as the quiet, wise but playful Mr. Miyagi, one of the iconic figures of 80s cinema. Morita was nominated for an Oscar, which was perhaps a slight overreaction. He is sometimes a little over-the-top, as in his leg-kicking laughter after he dunks Daniel in the water or his melancholy drunk act in an overwrought, if still moving, scene which explains his solitary existence. But there’s a keen comic timing and deft physicality at work here too, both in his controlled deadpan exterior and the moments when his emotions show through. It is a shame that he only shares a couple of scenes with Shue, as the pair become an effective comic duo towards the end of the film with a belt-stealing bit and a beautifully timed phoney interpreter routine.
The Karate Kid is not without its flaws. Given that it is aimed at a teen audience, the broad performances of the young supporting cast are forgivable and the psychotic overplaying of the bullies at least makes them easy figures to hate so that we can better relish their eventual downfall (in line with the true meaning of karate!). I’ve always found Randee Heller’s performance as Daniel’s quirky mother a little bit annoying too, which seems to be an issue of writing as much as performance. The obligatory romance in films like this is often a lowpoint but Macchio and Shue have real chemistry and it is played with a likeable innocence rather than an icky teen sexuality (although Macchio opens his mouth way too wide when they finally share a kiss, an issue of comfort rather than prudishness). But the attempts to introduce an examination of class divisions is so perfunctory that one wonders why they bothered at all, especially in a film that already feels about 15 minutes too long.
But The Karate Kid absolutely wins out in its portrayal of the relationship between Daniel and Miyagi. There’s a slow build to this but once the karate training begins, the spotlight shifts from Daniel’s school life to this newfound friendship, with each participant becoming a surrogate for a lost father and child. The Karate Kid is sometimes called an Action film but overall it is much more serene and meditative than that implies. There are good bursts of action here and there (who among us isn’t guiltily waiting for the bit where Mr. Miyagi beats up some kids?) but ask anyone what they remember most and it’s likely to be Daniel working his way through a list of tedious chores, only realising the point of the exercise retrospectively in one of the best scenes in the whole film (“Show me wax on, wax off”). The development of the friendship is genuinely touching, culminating in a wonderful birthday scene in which the father/son dynamic is thoroughly cemented and Miyagi quietly acknowledges that he has let Daniel see a side of him well hidden and is glad of the newfound understanding to which this has led. The final 20 minutes of The Karate Kid also provide a very satisfying climax, with the Karate Tournament delivering all the required thrills set to the rousingly 80s strains of Joe Esposito’s You’re the Best. I’ve always found Johnny’s eleventh hour turnaround (“You’re alright, LaRusso”) to be an unconvincing concession to sportsmanship which risks positioning the respect of bullies as the ultimate prize, but Miyagi’s victorious smile soon erases that sour taste.
The jury’s still out on whether I’d love The Karate Kid as much as I do if I’d seen it for the first time yesterday. But I’m pretty sure that, even removing the undoubted sentimental influence of nostalgia, I would still respond to how unpretentious the whole thing feels. If it is corny here and there, there’s also strong work from writer, director and actors in establishing those two main characters who have endured so entertainingly down the years. I can throw The Karate Kid on and enjoy it pretty much anytime, and though it does feel like a 5-stars-in-my-heart/4-stars-in-my-brain kind of film, I think it retains a classic sense of simple, rewarding storytelling that ensures a great evening’s viewing.
THE KARATE KID PART II
The blockbuster success of the first Karate Kid film made a sequel almost inevitable but how do you follow up a story when the main character’s arc feels complete? You shift the focus onto the supporting character and then fall back on that old sitcom spin-off film trope of sending them on holiday. OK, so it’s not exactly a holiday per se. The trip that Daniel and Mr. Miyagi take to Okinawa Island is motivated by the serious illness of Miyagi’s father but his return home after decades away revives a rivalry with former friend Sato over a woman they both loved. Cue a lot of exposition explaining Miyagi’s past. Daniel and Miyagi spend a large portion of the first half of the film walking around Okinawa as Miyagi explains the plot setup. The film’s already slow-pace and karate-light storyline suffers as a result.
It probably felt like a great idea to make Miyagi the focus of The Karate Kid Part II. After all, he was everyone’s favourite character in the first film, right? Unfortunately, spotlighting Miyagi robs him of much of his appeal. In the first film he was enigmatic, only giving up details of his past in moments of vulnerability or as part of his teaching methods. Here, he seems determined to dictate his autobiography to Daniel and the knowledge that his past is largely made up of cliche robs the character of his considerable mystique. The other problem is that, in a film that bears the Karate Kid moniker, the karate kid himself is somewhat marginalised for much of the runtime. When the focus shifts back to Daniel in the second half, the film starts to pick up a bit. Although lumbering Daniel with another gang of bullies might seem repetitive, that’s essentially how this franchise works at its best. You need the adversaries in order to set up the martial arts scenes. And given how few of them there are this time round, it’s a relief when the role of Yuki Okumoto’s Chozen and his intimidation of Daniel begin to snap into focus.
For fans of the first film, The Karate Kid Part II has a few treats in store. After a recap of the The Karate Kid’s major events that runs under the opening credits, we get a nice little prologue that follows on immediately from Daniel’s tournament win. Set in the car park after the tournament, it finds Martin Kove’s villainous sensei John Kreese being put in his place by Miyagi after his petulant response to losing unleashes a psychotic side. Apparently this prologue was originally intended to be the first film’s epilogue and you can see how it might’ve seemed natural during the writing process to offer a proper comeuppance for Kreese, but The Karate Kid was Daniel’s story and his victory was the correct place to end that story. Handily, the scene’s switch of focus to Miyagi makes it as effective an opening to The Karate Kid Part II as it would’ve been an inappropriate ending to its predecessor. Narratively problematic as the Miyagi-centric storyline proves to be, this beginning at least provides a completely natural transition into it.
Though it is initially enjoyable to watch Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita’s easy chemistry all over again, there’s an immediate sense that the most interesting part of their relationship has already been dealt with in the first film. There’s a touching, sustained warmth to their friendship that is a pleasure to experience but it’s not enough to help us plough through all that exposition. There’s also a frustratingly perfunctory feel to how The Karate Kid Part II shrugs off the absence of Elisabeth Shue’s character Ali. Given where the plot of this sequel goes and the pressure to include a burgeoning romance in any teen-targeted film of the era, it seems the removal of Shue was a necessity but a fleeting piece of dialogue about how Ali accidentally damaged Daniel’s car before running off with a UCLA football player does the character a disservice, hastily portraying her as a shallow liability in a way that perhaps justifies how mild Daniel’s reaction is to their breakup but completely devalues the whole sweetly rendered romantic arc of the first film.
If the opening stretch of The Karate Kid Part II is a bit of a slog, the second half of the film provides enough of the old magic to make it a worthwhile sequel. Though the flame never fully rekindles, there are good scenes involving an ice-breaking contest and Miyagi once again kicking some teenage ass! Though on first viewing I can remember feeling terribly disappointed that the plotline involving Miyagi and Sato’s decades-long grudge didn’t culminate in the promised fight between them, as a more mature viewer I can see the thematic necessity for this to be the case. Instead, we get a very good action sequence involving a violent storm which helps resolve many of the film’s conflicts non-violently. But for those who paid for blood, The Karate Kid Part II finally serves it up in a climactic battle between Daniel and Chozen which, if not as thrilling as the tournament finale of the first film, does double down on the brutality and ups the life-or-death stakes. It also ensures that by the time the closing credits roll, The Karate Kid Part II has reaffirmed its right to call itself a Karate Kid film, rather than The Miyagi Man featuring special guest Daniel LaRusso.
If The Karate Kid Part II fails to recapture the charm and humour of the first film, it does eventually supply a reasonably satisfying second instalment. There’s much to enjoy here in the continued likability of the lead performances, a stronger villain in Chozen (although watching Cobra Kai did turn me around on Johnny), a handful of nice set pieces and a classically cheesy 80s hit on the soundtrack in Peter Cetera’s Glory of Love.
THE KARATE KID PART III
I sat down to watch The Karate Kid Part III with mixed feelings. I’ve been very much enjoying being reunited with Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi over the last few evenings but I was aware that this film is usually considered the absolute worst of the franchise. I was hoping for a so-bad-it’s-fun experience but the fact that I’ve seen The Karate Kid Part III several times before and couldn’t really remember it didn’t feel like a good sign. Then it started and memories came flooding back. With the arrival of Thomas Ian Griffith as villain Terry Silver, I suddenly recalled how batshit crazy this thing is.
In many ways, The Karate Kid Part III continues the story as fans may have expected and hoped. It brings back psychotic sensei John Kreese following his humiliation in the first two films and sets up a revenge plot. However, actor Martin Kove had scheduling conflicts which meant Kreese couldn’t appear in the film as much as originally intended. Instead, he is packed off on holiday by his millionaire ex-army buddy Terry Silver, who takes up his vendetta with an obsessive dedication and sadistic glee. Already The Karate Kid Part III is on shaky ground. Not only is the idea of two adult men waging such a petulant and brutal war on a teenage boy a little hard to sell, there is also a consistent sense that it should be Kreese pulling the strings, rather than deferring to Silver in a lapdog-like fashion that makes his character feel almost redundant. In this slapdash style, The Karate Kid Part III immediately betrays its hastily-thrown-together nature. Other barely-concealed inconsistencies include the fact that, although it follows on immediately from the previous film, as Daniel and Miyagi step off the plane from Okinawa it is clear that Ralph Macchio has gained quite a bit of weight. While I have no problem with an out-of-shape leading man, this detail immediately undermines the notion that no time has passed between the two films. Had anyone cared a little more about the film they were making, some effort to get Macchio looking more like he did in Part II might have been made, but Macchio, director John G. Avildsen and writer Robert Mark Kamen have all stated that they were disillusioned or bored with the franchise by this point. Kamen in particular felt strongarmed into turning in yet another rewrite of his original premise, when his intention had been to write an out-there 16th century, Wuxia-infused prequel in which Daniel and Miyagi time travel in a dream to meet Miyagi’s ancestors. While it’s accepted practice to roll your eyes at studio pressure scuppering artistic intentions, to be honest Kamen’s idea does somehow sound worse than what we actually got.
The plot problems don’t stop there. Not only is it clear that Kreese was meant to be the main villain, but Robyn Lively’s pottery store employee Jessica was clearly supposed to be Daniel’s love interest. But when they cast Lively in the role, there was an age gap problem in that Ralph Macchio was 27 and Lively was 16. While most films would have got round this with more appropriate casting, here it is obvious that any romantic moments have just been ripped out of the screenplay and a short dialogue has been inserted explaining how Jessica made up with her boyfriend, after which her and Daniel resolve to just be friends. I’m not against a central platonic relationship either but the necessary script adjustments have not been made. Macchio and Lively‘s first scene together introduces the notion of an ex-boyfriend through a vandalised photo in which Jessica has removed his head. This is clearly setting up her availability and the two arrange a date for that evening. It is on arrival for that date that the cumbersome new dialogue finds Jessica telling Daniel that she has made up with her boyfriend and will be moving back home to be with him soon. So we end up with a weird non-romance, strongly hinted at in the early scene and then immediately diffused in the next one, by way of an unseen boyfriend character who serves no purpose in the plot whatsoever. When your plot redrafts are showing this badly, and would be so patently unnecessary with a recast of the role, it’s clear that your film is held together very tenuously and no-one cares enough to hide that fact.
The upside of how quickly The Karate Kid Part III tips its hand as a complete rush job is that expectations are almost immediately reduced. The canny viewer realises early on that the only way to enjoy this thing is as an over-the-top travesty and, with all delusions of quality set aside, The Karate Kid Part III can just about be enjoyed on that level. While the second film in the trilogy is clearly better, it’s a strangely serious affair, wrapped up in a Miyagi honour grudge which pretty much drains all the humour out of the franchise. By contrast, The Karate Kid Part III is too silly. That can be enjoyable in a way but fans of the franchise may be left with an empty feeling at the end. Though the second film didn’t recapture the magic of the first, it was nice for a while to be reunited with Daniel and Miyagi. Here, they’re a shadow of their former selves, with Macchio in particular going into OTT overdrive to try and compensate for the film’s shortcomings. The result is that he comes across like an over-enthusiastic game show host or an overbearing used car salesman, clearly too old to be playing 18 and not fit enough to be entering, let alone winning, karate tournaments. Speaking of which, the finale returns us to the tournament from the first film as Daniel defends his title, but there’s none of the atmosphere of that original outing. Apparently there’s a rule that means Daniel only has to fight once, condensing the whole sequence into a single battle that is completely devoid of tension and seems to resolve around a simple fluke. The point is that Daniel’s adversaries push it too far by bad-mouthing Mr. Miyagi, but that dynamic has already been damaged too much by how readily Daniel forsakes his mentor earlier in the film, another writing shortcut to keep the film moving at the expense of credibility. What’s more, Daniel’s victory doesn’t end anything. He still has an obsessive millionaire and a furious sensei angry at him and just because their incoherent plan to humiliate him doesn’t come off, I don’t believe for a second they’ll just pack up and leave. They still plan to flood the local area with Cobra Kai dojos and they still have heavies (hilariously named Snake and Dennis) who can keep smashing up Miyagi’s bonsai shop. This is really no kind of ending at all.
Despite it being almost objectively a terrible film, The Karate Kid Part III does have entertaining elements. Although he is disconcertingly out of character in many scenes and surprisingly marginalised, Mr. Miyagi can still be relied upon to turn up at key moments and kick some ass, and there’s a particularly satisfying example in this film, albeit a sloppily directed one. There are a few reasonably effective scenes set around a cliffside that houses a heavy-handily symbolic bonsai tree. But the chief source of enjoyment is Thomas Ian Griffith’s wacky performance as Terry Silver. With John Kreese, Snake and Dennis and “bad boy of karate” Mike Barnes also in the mix, The Karate Kid Part III has too many villains but Silver overshadows them all, with Griffith putting in a performance that he knows is wildly over-the-top, and relishing every moment. Perhaps this self-awareness is what saved him from a Razzie nomination, a dubious honour that both Macchio and Pat Morita received for their work here. When The Karate Kid Part III inevitably became the final chapter in Daniel LaRusso’s story, it left many fans with an empty feeling that no amount of ironic enjoyment could erase. Thankfully, the arrival of the Cobra Kai series decades later provided a satisfactory continuation that perhaps renders The Karate Kid Part III more watchable in retrospect. But ultimately, there’s little here to tempt lovers of the original back, least of all any actual karate. For the record, Miyagi agrees to train Daniel 17 minutes from the end of the film, with this training taking the form of one montage during which they just wave their arms slowly on a beach. Given that Macchio was far from a kid anymore and that the franchise had gradually been moving away from its focus on karate, The Karate Kid feels like a misleading title on both counts.
THE NEXT KARATE KID
It seemed like a good idea. Given that Ralph Macchio had been too old to convincingly play a teenager by the time of The Karate Kid Part III, retiring his character or changing the franchise name was inevitable. The third option, to bring in a new kid and make Daniel LaRusso the mentor, was pretty much scuppered by a third instalment that backtracked on Daniel’s character development and robbed him of the growing emotional maturity he showed in Part II which might have made such a plot progression plausible. But Macchio was sick of the franchise by this point anyway, declaring that he had no intention of becoming “the Sylvester Stallone of karate movies.” Another problem with making Daniel the mentor was that it would’ve usurped Mr. Miyagi’s role, and Miyagi had justifiably become everyone’s favourite character in the franchise. So the path forward seemed clear: bring in a new troubled teen character for Miyagi to focus on, while Daniel is presumed to be away getting that college education Miyagi had been pushing persistently for the last two films.
Making the new karate kid a girl was a terrific idea. It opened up the franchise’s audience, which had been pointedly male targeted, and provided the potential for a different kind of relationship between Miyagi and his protege. Unfortunately, the hiring of a pre-fame Hilary Swank was perhaps the last good idea associated with The Next Karate Kid. It pains me to say that the film is terrible, especially since inserting a female protagonist into a male dominated franchise tends to ignite the ire of the worst kind of person. Therefore, I’d like to state outright that The Next Karate Kid isn’t bad because of its female star. Swank is one of the only decent things in it. The problems lie in story, script, character, direction and, heartbreakingly, Pat Morita’s performance as Miyagi. Miyagi had been through several changes across the franchise but they were mostly attributable to bad writing rather than character development. The character’s last appearance prior to The Next Karate Kid had been in the non-canon, largely forgotten Karate Kid cartoon series, which lasted for 13 episodes. The version of Miyagi we get in The Next Karate Kid seems to have got stuck in cartoon mode. He’s no longer a real person and he’s a very far cry from the mysterious, monosyllabic and complex creation from the original film. Morita’s Oscar-nominated performance in that film had been compelling. Now Miyagi just seems like a fun uncle, his poise and sternness completely gone. His tragic history seems to have been erased too, since he barely bats an eyelid when he’s told that he would’ve made a great father.
The Next Karate Kid was the first film in the franchise not directed by John G. Avildsen, with Christopher Cain taking up the mantle. Cain makes the film feel like a TV movie, without a moment that feels remotely cinematic. But Mark Lee’s screenplay, the first Karate Kid script not written by Robert Mark Kamen, doesn’t give Cain much to work with. It establishes Swank’s character of Julie Pierce well enough, making her an angry, disrespectful but basically soft-hearted teen reeling from the death of her parents in a car accident. Her problems are compounded by the unwanted attentions of Ned, an aggressive and manipulative fellow student who is part of a dodgy fraternity of security guards in training, led by a self-styled Colonel called Dugan. Eric, another member of the fraternity, becomes disillusioned with the Colonel’s brutal methods, and his rejection of the group, coupled with his growing relationship with Julie, brings down the full force of Ned and Dugan’s anger upon them.
Clearly, the script is steering us towards familiar ground: Julie is Daniel, Eric is Ali, Ned is Johnny, Dugan is Kreese, Miyagi is… Uncle Buck, for some reason, but crucially, Julie is Daniel. So we can expect some training montages, a high stakes confrontation with a big build up and a satisfying payoff… right? Sadly, the script continues one of the series’ most baffling qualities across the first three films, which was to move away from the karate-based content. So instead of seeing Julie training as Daniel did, we get a fairly tedious interlude at a monastery during which she learns the importance of not killing cockroaches, while a group of Buddhist monks are patronisingly portrayed as if they are Minions. The comedy monks are just one distraction from the karate that should be central to the story. Of course, because we have a female protagonist, we have to focus on the importance of prom. So we get a comedy scene in which Miyagi struggles to buy Julie a surprise dress and a scene in which Miyagi teaches Julie to dance, which lasts much longer than any karate training sequence that the more eagle-eyed viewers may have spotted.
Ultimately, The Next Karate Kid climaxes with a street fight between Julie and Ned which is over before it really gets going and fails to properly demonstrate anything Julie has learned beyond one big kick. Although it is preceded by a solemn “It is time” from Mr. Miyagi, there’s no indication that anyone was expecting such a confrontation to be in the offing. The Next Karate Kid also makes a mistake that the first three films were careful to avoid. It climaxes with a battle between Miyagi and Dugan. This undermines the focus on the titular Kid, as well as going against Miyagi’s strict adherence to the rule that karate is for defence only, since he actually challenges Dugan to the fight himself. This is a sad send-off for the character, whom Morita never portrayed again. He ends his time with the franchise as a complete shadow of his former self, his dedication to a strict code of honour when it comes to karate being the final facet to fall away. The films in the original Karate Kid franchise neatly demonstrate how diminishing returns work. I rated the first one 4 stars, the second 3, the third 2 and the fourth 1. The arrival of Cobra Kai has happily rejuvenated the franchise in the eyes of fans, honouring the continuity without sinking to the lows of the latter films. Rumours at the time of writing that Julie Pierce may appear in later series are exciting, if only to give Swank and the character of Julie a proper chance at the storyline they deserve.
THE KARATE KID (2010)
Even as someone who has just spent the last three weeks on a deep dive of the four original Karate Kid films and the entirety of Cobra Kai, I’m not completely ignorant of the role nostalgia plays in the appreciation of these movies. So it’s not hard to see why a remake of the 1984 classic seemed like a good idea in 2010. There are plenty of positive messages to be mined from this tale and it’s unlikely that many 21st century kids would dig back as far as the 80s to find them, at least without a certain amount of parental duress. Harald Zwart’s remake, then, racks up a couple of important achievements in that it provides a version of The Karate Kid that will resonate with a more recent generation while also avoiding sticking slavishly to every aspect of its source text. Though the basic plot remains the same, Christopher Murphey’s screenplay has made enough changes to justify The Karate Kid 2010’s existence beyond a nostalgia-update.
One of The Karate Kid 2010’s most widely-criticised flaws is its title. In this update, Jaden Smith’s Dre Parker is actually taught Kung Fu by Jackie Chan’s Mr. Han. Clearly, the title The Karate Kid had to be retained merely for commercial reasons, tying the film instantly to the original for those who hadn’t read a synopsis. But the effect this has is to immediately impose an unfortunate sense of wilful Western ignorance on the film. There’s a concerted effort to avoid the accusations of whitewashing and Orientalism that are now levelled at the originals, with a young black protagonist moving from Detroit to Beijing rather than New Jersey to California. But in calling a film about Kung Fu The Karate Kid, there’s a sense of a shrugging “Karate, Kung Fu, they’re all the same” attitude that immediately undermines any positive progressive work being done here, if only partially. There’s also a moment early on in which The Karate Kid 2010 sacrifices its own unique identity in favour of a cheap, easy laugh. We meet Chan’s Mr. Han eating a bowl of noodles with chopsticks. A fly suddenly intrudes on his meal and he steadily raises the chopsticks and clicks them a couple of times, as if to try and catch the fly. But then a large flyswatter abruptly comes into view, efficiently but artlessly crushing the insect. This, of course, is a tip of the hat to the original, a joke that only works if you’ve seen that film. It also serves to let the audience know that Han is not a mere Miyagi clone but this is information we would’ve gleaned soon enough from the different writing and performance styles. In evoking the original film, The Karate Kid 2010 takes viewers out of the current experience and introduces an unhelpful line of comparison that need not be in play. Perhaps the filmmakers imagined the fly to represent the original film and Han’s unceremonious killing of it to imply their assertion of their own work over nostalgic concerns. But, in the very unlikely event that such a mangled metaphor were the intention, it is their own film’s credibility that the filmmakers inadvertently cast in the role of the fly.
The Karate Kid 2010 does have some pluses, chief among them being Jackie Chan. Always a likeable screen presence, Chan does a stellar job as Kung Fu mentor Mr. Han, introducing a melancholy, downbeat element to his performance style and skilfully maintaining it even in the scene where he gets to show off his fighting skills. Moving the action to China gives this Karate Kid a greater sense of historical authenticity and Zwart makes full panoramic use of the striking scenery at his disposal. I was also impressed that Murphey’s screenplay doesn’t feel the need to recreate every beat of the original. So instead of the iconic Wax on, Wax off sequence, we get a lengthy process involves taking off, putting on and hanging up a jacket. It made me smile to see a fellow Letterboxd reviewer talking about how there were students in their college recreating that scene as they walked into class that morning, confirming that this new version of The Karate Kid has indeed found favour with a new generation.
There are, however, a few too many downsides for me to really say I enjoyed The Karate Kid 2010. There’s an odd sterility to the filmmaking here which I’m quite willing to put down to an unfair comparison. I’m sure the same sterility was felt by those who saw the 80s version with no nostalgic attachment to 80s filmmaking so this one’s at least partially on me. But there’s more to it than that. Though Chan is good in his role, Jaden Smith is thoroughly flat in the lead role, never once hinting at the off-kilter charm of Ralph Macchio. But the heart of the original film was in the chemistry between Macchio and Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi, something that the new film doesn’t come even close to replicating with Smith and Chan. By the time Smith is saying things like “You’re the best friend I ever had, Mr. Han”, the lack of a visible connection is all too apparent. There’s still a superficial enjoyment to be had from watching the training process (a tad more unforgiving here, as Han attacks Dre with a boxing glove on a stick in a distinctly un-Miyagi-esque move) but the finale falls a little flat, with the busy camerawork drowning the tension in over-insistent kineticism. The decision to focus on younger pre-teen protagonists also extinguishes some of the hormonal tension that drove the rivalries of the original, although the film still uncomfortably insists on pushing a central romance, even if this is thankfully kept relatively innocent. Ultimately, I’m willing to take some more personal responsibility for the fact that I’m uncomfortable with a film that ends with a celebratory reaction to a 12 year old being kicking in the face but fine with the same reaction to the similar brutalisation of a teenager (although the fact that William Zabka was pushing 20 when his Johnny was taken out by Daniel LaRusso does slightly contextualise my reaction).
The Karate Kid 2010 is a film I’m glad exists. Contrary to the across-the-board negative reaction I used to have to remakes, here is an example of a film in which an update has numerous benefits and there is a concerted effort to make a different kind of film rather than just a retread of the 80s version. I’d be intrigued to hear from someone who grew up with the newer version who had then gone back to the original, as I’m sure that would expose numerous weaknesses to which my rose-tinted specs are probably immune. But ultimately, though I love one and not the other, I don’t see the two versions of The Karate Kid as facing off against each other with crane kicks and leg sweeps, so much as coexisting peacefully, pruning their individual bonsai trees into different-but-same patterns.