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New “Karate Kid” a worthy successor to classic story


BY SEAN O’CONNELL

Hollywoodnews.comThe Karate Kid (*** out of 4)
Color me surprised. In our current, remake-crazed film culture, where warm nostalgia often gets thrust aside in a selfish grab for cold-hard cash and familiarity breeds contempt for stories we once cherished, Harald Zwart’s “The Karate Kid” manages to respectfully adapt and, in some spots, improve on an influential classic as it retells for another generation an inspirational story that’s worth repeating.

Yes, screenwriter Christopher Murphey introduces a major, game-changing twist to the original “Karate Kid” plot, and no, it’s not that the bullied teenager is black. The unsettling difference is a move for the new “Kid” not to sunny California but to bustling Beijing. For so many reasons, it’s a wise decision. First, it immediately amplifies the fish-out-of-water fears felt by young Dre (Jaden Smith) as he struggles to fit in with his not-so-accommodating classmates. Sure, we could relate to Ralph Macchio’s Daniel, a swarthy, cocky Italian kid from the Garden State trying (unsuccessfully) to blend in with the sun-dappled beauties of the Golden State. But he was still on American soil, surrounded by American comforts. With Dre, there’s an automatic language barrier to overcome, a severe cultural shift with which he must contend. So when he tells his mother, played with concern and support by the welcome Taraji P. Henson, that he hates this place and just wants to go home, we completely understand and wish such an escape were possible. We also comprehend, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it’s not possible, and that the safe confines of home are about as far away as one could imagine.

The Beijing relocation also means the martial arts angle makes more sense. Of course, karate is taught in every small town in the U.S. But there’s something more organic, more authentic about seeing Dre explore a dojo in China instead of Daniel infiltrating the Sunset Strip lair of the sinister Cobra Kai, where William Zabka’s bleach-blonde bully trains under the tutelage of the Midwestern-looking Martin Kove. That never bothered me in the original until I saw the flip-side in this current remake. Karate — or kung fu, as it’s constantly called — fits much better in the Asian-set adaptation.

Other than that, “Karate Kid” version 2.0 follows essentially the same beats as the original. Smith, displaying a portion of his father’s God-given charisma, makes enemies with the aggressive Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), and is rescued by Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the passive maintenance man who agrees to train the boy in kung fu. Household catchphrases “wax on” and “wax off” have been replaced by “take off the jacket” and “hang up the jacket,” but Zwart comes up with reasons for the switch instead of just forcing them on Dre (and us). Chan’s fans also will smile at the longtime fighter’s first karate scene, when he confronts the bullies on behalf of Dre. It incorporates the wacky fight choreography of Chan’s earliest days, utilizing articles of clothing to subdue overeager kid fighters. It’s very funny. Admittedly, the film drags in spots, particularly during the story-concluding tournament, yet I’m chalking this up to the fact that I already knew exactly what was going to happen, having memorized the original.

On a personal level, it’s strange to have reached a point where I’m reviewing remakes of films that were instrumental in forming my film palette. John G. Avildsen’s “The Karate Kid” might not have been much more than a teenaged template of his Oscar-winning “Rocky,” but I don’t think I’d watched Stallone’s boxing drama before I saw Daniel administer the crane kick to Johnny’s thick skull (I was 10 in 1984, and “Rocky” wasn’t on my radar), so I gladly bounced from my theater seat and cheered alongside the rest of the fist-pumping patrons. A similar wave of enthusiasm rushed over the parents and kids sitting in my “Karate Kid” screening when Dre triumphed over Cheng, even if they knew a victory was inevitable. I have a feeling that overwhelming, emotional support for this updated “Kid” will be contagious.

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