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Friday, June 18, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010)

Overall verdict: 9/10

The Good: endearing protagonist, story is easy to relate to, natural cast chemistry, amazing stunts, near perfect acting, more insightful than it seems

The Bad: stunts are "unbelievably" good, title discrepancy(he learns kung fu, not Karate), less true to the original.

Current Availability Status: in cinemas

One might get the wrong impression when a film’s title has nothing to do with its subject matter. The film in question is called “The Karate Kid”, presumably a remake of the 1984 coming of age classic starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita which has absolutely NOTHING to do with karate. The martial art featured in the film is Chinese kung fu and barring a few similarities in the broad story strokes, 2010’s “The Karate Kid” bears little resemblance to its source material. So instead of “Karate” we have Kung Fu. Instead of a high school senior love triangle with teenager testosterone rivalry, we have pre-pubescent puppy dog crushes, playground bullies and the very familiar “new kid in a strange new land” story combined with a garden variety underdog tale of a bullied protagonist who gets back on his feet and perseveres against all odds to come out on top. Now the underdog tale is nothing new, all that is different is the “sport” that serves as the story backdrop; Rocky had boxing, Fast And Furious Tokyo Drift had drift racing.

In “The Karate Kid”, A heartwarming opening montage introduces us to Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) who is made to move from Detroit to Beijing when his widowed mother gets a job transfer. Back home, he was well loved by his friends and neighbours, but now in China, Dre is a true “fish out of water”, unable to speak the most basic of Chinese or even get the building’s maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan) to fix his new home’s broken water heater. Before his first day at school, Dre develops a cute crush on a demure Chinese girl called Mei Ying and manages to incur the wrath of the school bully, Cheng, who so happens to be a top kung fu student. Dre learns that last fact the hard way by getting beaten up, bullied and humiliated every day. Determined not to back down, Dre decides to stand up to his adversaries. But that only results in a near lynching until he is saved by Mr Han who reveals himself as an ex-kung fu master. After easing Dre’s injuries, Mr Han takes the boy to go and make peace with Cheng’s Master, Li. However, the cruel Master Li, who teaches his students an exceedingly brutal form of kung fu, threatens Han and forces Dre to competing in a Martial Arts tournament. With no other choice left, Mr Han begins to teach the boy "real kung fu", which is far from being just a means of fighting.

"Karate Kid" is a rare type of film that plays very close to the heart without giving the impression of forced melodrama. Anyone who has ever been through childhood would probably be able to relate to the trials young Dre goes through; from wanting to step away from his parent's overprotective shadow to learning to assert his own individuality. It is a painful but valuable lesson in growing up that Dre goes through and his turmoil is effectively conveyed thanks to the superb acting by young Jaden Smith.

The twelve year old son of veteran actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith shows off his wide acting talent in his first lead role. He brings a natural sense of earnestness with just the right mixture of attitude to his role. As a result, Dre comes across as very easy to relate to and a likable protagonist whom the audience might gladly cheer on. All the other child actors are impeccable in their roles tothe point where it is easy to forget that they are acting and get totally absorbed into the story and its characters. Special mention goes to Jackie Chan in his role of Mr Han. A departure from his usual comedic roles, Mr Han is played as a stern middle aged man whose quirky ways and wise traditional kung fu teachings masks a tragic secret. Easily the most interesting and well developed character, maybe even more so than the protagonist, and a solid effort by Chan.

Hidden beneath "Karate kid's" layered narrative is a smart jibe at China's modernisation and increasingly competitive education system. The contrast between Mr Han's traditional ideals of Kung Fu as a skill that leads to self mastery and Master Li's dogma of kung fu as a merciless means to dominate one's opponent highlights the very real system where everyone would do anything, even playing it dirty, to get to the top; where tradition is regarded more as a hindrance, where parents expect nothing but the best from their children and where second place means utter disgrace.

As realistic as the story and characters are, some suspension of disbelief is required when it comes to the actual kung fu fighting. Seeing young boys, years away from breaking their voice, throw flying flip kicks with a level of professional expertise beyond any world class Olympics champ, puts a great strain on anyone trying to take the film seriously. The stunts are perfect, the fights are beautifully choreographed, but perhaps it was too good a job that resulted in a lessening of the realism factor.

Complemented by a roaring soundtrack by James Horner, "The Karate Kid" has all the makings of a timeless classic just like the original film it is based on. It is fun, smart and touches on themes that anyone who has ever had a childhood might be able to easily relate to. All one has to do is put aside the discrepancy between the title and the featured martial art in order to fully enjoy this gem of a movie.
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Go For it: if you are a fan of feel-good "underdog" triumph stories, if you had a childhood or if you want to see the breakout role of a bright young star in he making.
Avoid it: if you expect a faithful recretion of the old Karate Kid film or if you cannot look past the errornous title.

Entertainment: A
Story: B+
Acting: A
Characters: A
Music: A-

Replay value: A-
"Brains": B+

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