Along with the Rocky saga, 1984’s The Karate Kid (and to a lesser extent it’s two true sequels) are fondly remembered as one of the best loved underdog stories of all time, and remain a huge hit with families across the globe, meaning that this year’s remake of The Karate Kid had a good deal of apprehension to compete with if it was to be successful.
Rather than going for a straight scene-for-scene remake, the new film keeps the fish-out-of-water theme, but swaps a New-York teen moving to Los Angeles, for an American pre-teen moving to China, where he also attracts the affections of a young-lady, and gets on the wrong side of the local bully.
Dre Parker (Jaden Smith); the young lad in question; moves to China after his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson, Date Night) gets a job transfer and relocates, and while he soon makes friends with a young girl, he quickly gets on the wrong side of a local bully and ends up having to take more than his fair share of beatings when the bully’s spot him in the park, at school, and whenever he begins to appreciate China (as he’s generally pretty unhappy about the move); such as when he visits a large local Kung Fu dojo.
After witnessing Dre getting beaten up by several other 12-year-olds; who are clearly much stronger, and better trained than him; the maintenance man from Dre’s building; a quiet man by the name of Mr. Han (Jackie Chan, Rush Hour); steps in, fends off the bullys, and reluctantly agrees to help Dre solve his problem.
Solving Dre’s problem however isn’t simply a matter of asking the boys, or their Kung Fu teacher, to stop attacking him (mainly because the teacher requires that his students provide no mercy, under any circumstances), but having Dre fight them at their own game; something Mr. Han agrees to (without Dre’s knowledge), when he decides to train Dre up to fight in the local Kung Fu tournament.
From that point on the bullys agree to leave Dre alone, and the film revolves around watching him court the affections of the young Chinese girl he has come to fancy, and training with the rather unconventional Mr. Han; who spends several days at the beginning of Dre’s training simply asking him to take off, hang up, and put his jacket back on, in order to teach him a couple of lessons; before Dre has to finally face his rivals at the big tournament, in front of everyone.
So aside from moving the location from Los Angeles to China, the plot pretty much exactly follows that of the original, with many lines, actions, and shots, emulated (and sometimes flat out copied) throughout, but it’s often the change of location that makes this new Karate Kid (which shouldn’t actually be called the Karate Kid; because unlike in the original, where Daniel actually practiced karate, Dre studies Kung Fu) a joy to watch; as the cinematography is stunning, and the Chinese landscape provides an excellent backdrop to watch the transformation of Dre from a scared young kid, into a still slightly scared, but thoroughly capable, Kung Fu master that’s ready to tackle anything thrown at him.
The can-do attitude, and strong sense of ability, is something that shines through Jaden Smith’s performance, and also makes him a brilliant young actor; because he’s so funny, cocky, and easy to like (just like his father; Men in Black’s Will Smith; with whom he shares numerous expressions), but can convincingly convey a whole range of emotions (there’s few child stars who can be so likable when cocky, and convincing when acting sad), and is, by the end of the picture, scarily proficient in the art of Kung Fu; obviously being able to actually do the amazing things seen on screen, and completing some moves that are reminiscent of Van Damme in his prime.
Jackie Chan is as good as ever here; playing the part of the maintenance man/reluctant mentor; and whilst it may not be his most memorable performance, there’s no denying his ability as a martial artist, or his ability to play a strong and endearing mentor that every child would want to teach them, but unfortunately is neither as likable, nor as funny, as Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, Happy Days) from the original movie.
The relationship between Dre and Mr. Han also doesn’t come off quite as strong as the relationship between Daniel (Ralph Macchio, My Cousin Vinny) and Mr. Miyagi, but nevertheless stays believable, convincing, and suited to this take on the tale; as is the much more modern take on the fighting style.
Unlike the original film, which contained fairly limited, yet still proficient, and deeply tense, fight sequences in the final tournament, the new film goes for a much more flashy style; with massive flips, crazy kicks, and 12-year-olds doing things that many extremely proficient adult martial artist couldn’t complete; and unfortunately loses some of the heart that the original contained in the process of gaining a much more amazing spectacle, yet remains thoroughly enjoyable, manages to keep just enough of that tension alive, and even create a bit of humour.
So whilst this new film unfortunately sacrifices some of the heart that the original brought to the screen, and loses some of the humour and tension along the way, it makes up for it by featuring amazing cinematography; that should really be seen by everyone; solid performances by some truly great actors (it’s hard to envision a world where Jaden Smith won’t become one of the biggest, brightest, and best loved stars of his generation; judging by his performance here), a great training montage (seeing Jaden’s transformation really is amazing), and some truly spectacular fights, that mean The Karate Kid is a thoroughly enjoyable watch, a successful attempt at updating a classic, and a family film that’s severely unlike to disappoint anyone but extremely devoted fans of the original movie.
One of the things that The Karate Kid was most praised for upon release was its impressive cinematography; which looks the best it possibly could on Blu-ray, thanks to the striking level of detail that perfectly accentuates all the landscapes, objects, and textures, that make up the Chinese theatre of the film, as well as the stunning colour reproduction, which maintains an overall natural feel, but includes plenty of bright colours that feel well rendered, strong, and never over-saturated.
There’s plenty of depth to the transfer, which boasts superb black levels; being deep and inky, yet never swallowing even a hint of detail; natural looking skintones, a thin filmic layer of grain, and not a single technical hitch (as there are no scratches, blemishes, or artificial issues; such as noise reduction, or ringing; evident), making for a pristine transfer that showcases in an excellent light, and lets it be seen exactly as it was intended to be seen.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track that brings the sounds of The Karate Kid to Blu-ray may not have the same sense of flair as its visuals, but is just as impressive, thanks to perfectly clear, and well prioritized, dialogue, well used bass that enhances the movie’s music and adds just enough weight to some of the many punches and kicks that are thrown, and a realistic and enveloping use of the surround channels; which remain active not only during the big fights, but in many smaller scenes, and provide a true sense of realism and space; all making for a soundtrack that despite being rather less powerful than many action orientated mixes (The Karate Kid certainly can’t hold up to The Pacific in terms of the wow-factor), is weighty enough in its own right, appropriate and accurate, and near flawless.
The Karate Kid comes to Blu-ray loaded with a number of special features (many of which are exclusive to the Blu-ray format), beginning with Chinese lessons; a skippable, child-friendly, look at keys words and phrases in Chinese, illustrated with scenes from the film; a Justin Beiber music video; the enjoyment of which will depend wholly on your musical inclinations, and is another easily skippable inclusion; and a well made Making Of featurette that’s short, snappy, and discusses everything from training, shooting, and the last film, to the score, and how Jackie Chan came up with the “Jacket on” idea, and is well worth a watch, especially for the casual fan.
Following those comes the Blu-ray exclusive features, which begin with an interactive map of China; that showcases some raw production footage of the shooting locales, and is definitely worth a look (and handy for anyone planning a Karate Kid themed trip to China); a series of nine production diaries; that include a profile of the film’s director (Harald Zwart, Agent Cody Banks), footage of Jaden Smith training for his role, shooting locations, and more; including a day in the life section (of much higher quality, but much less humour, than that of The Inbetweeners), as well as an alternate ending; which is a must watch, as it sees Jackie Chan getting into a fight at the end of the film, but would have been a terrible inclusion; and Sony’s pop-up trivia track; Movie IQ.
So while there may be a bunch of skippable material in amongst the mix, the Blu-ray edition of The Karate Kid thankfully comes loaded with many more bonus materials than the standard DVD release, and has something for both the casual fans (for which the short making of will provide plenty of information), and the more devout followers, who will appreciate the production footage, and diaries, and will not come away disappointed.
The Bottom Line:
This year’s remake of The Karate Kid is a thoroughly enjoyable, totally successful, modern take on a classic, and although some of the heart has been lost from the original, it’s peppered with great performances (none more so than the film’s stand out star; Jaden Smith), stunning cinematography, and some amazing fight sequences, that make it a brilliantly fun watch.
The Blu-ray release of The Karate Kid is also the only way to own the film; as the picture and audio quality are both stunning, and the disc’s best special features aren’t available to be seen on DVD; meaning that it’s clearly a better buy than the standard definition version (especially seen as how the Blu-ray edition of the movie is a Double-Play edition, and comes bundled with a DVD).
Therefore, the Blu-ray edition of The Karate Kid would make a sound blind-buy, as it’s an enjoyable watch for kids and adults alike; being fun, new, interesting, and successfully paying homage to a true ‘80s classic; making it not only a good watch, and a sound buy, but a perfect stocking-filler for most kids, and fans of the original, this Christmas, and a film the whole family can enjoy.